Quietly impassioned, admirably measured, excellently authentic, and ingeniously realized, No is a Latin American Mad Men, a fascinating piece of history that escaped much of the world’s notice, and a prescient case study in basic-level democracy. It’s a canny comedy, a cutting critique, and a cunning combination of high-stakes drama and media satire.
In 1988, Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet, due to international pressure, is forced to call a plebiscite on his presidency. The country will vote yes or no to Pinochet remaining in power for another eight years. Opposition leaders appoint a brash young maverick advertising ace, Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal, Bad Education, The Motorcycle Diaries), to spearhead the campaign. With scant resources and under scrutiny by the despot’s minions, Saavedra and his team devise an audacious plan to win the election and set Chile free.
Writer-director Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, Post Mortem) satisfyingly completes his trilogy with an affirmative victory for democracy in No. Larraín substitutes the icy-veined harshness of his earlier films and replaces it with acidly crooked humour and a celebratory, robust sensibility. He employs period detail, 80s-era technology, and archival footage honeycombed with antique-looking TV commercials full of Lycra-clad dancers and gambolling mimes to deftly appropriate mediated history for “fiction.” Initially jarring, the video aesthetic depicts smartly and beautifully a nation in transition, in which the people are roused by the visual to overcome the vicious.
No is anything but a somber political tract: it’s perhaps the best film ever made about Chilean plebiscites, as well as the most unexpectedly riotous comedy in months – one with bite, and laughs that tend to stick in your throat. It tells a pertinent, double-edged tale that’s unveiled like a sort of boxing match, getting more intense with each round, reeling and ricocheting with emotional force before building to an exciting finish. It seems a natural for intelligent arthouse audiences.
Savvy, witty, and technically dazzling, No is a manifestation of national memory, a bleached, crummy-looking document of a great democratic accomplishment. Dramatizing a fertile subject and presenting an incredible true story of a country getting the unique opportunity to decide its own future, No is a picture perched precariously on the cusp of a paradox. It’s suspenseful even though the ending is already known. Larraín shows how idealism and venality sat side by side. No thoroughly deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film.
In politics, if we wait for good to arise only from the pure in heart, we will be waiting a very long time. No reminds us that wherever “freedom” is sold to the public, a history of complacency, violence, and terror must be overcome. While it unaffectedly celebrates faith in democracy and truth in advertising, it explores the power of popular dissent, the media’s ability to manipulate hearts and minds, and the act of shaping the word no to invigorate a population pessimistically conditioned to think that nothing will ever change for the good.
No isn’t as definitive as its title: it may leave viewers wondering whether they should cheer, shrug, or shake their heads. It also could have used a few central characters directly affected by the dictatorship in order to create more tension. Yet it’s a rare political satire that can sound the depths of irony and end on a note of ambivalent hope. Because of Larraín and Bernal, No is a resounding yes. Silliness is occasionally on the side of the angels.