Completing his triptych of films set during Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule (Tony Manero, Post Mortem), Pablo Larrain’s No examines the inner-machinations of one particularly tricky advertising campaign, as Pinochet’s opposition desperately seeks to expose his horrific human rights abuses. Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is the savvy advertising exec tasked with heading up the tricky task, fleeting as he does between confidence, cynicism, fear and self-doubt throughout the tumultuous creative period.
Shot on the U-matic used by TV stations of the period, No is presented in a 4:3 screen ratio; Larrain’s images, somewhat aptly, are peppered with garish artifacts and trails that only accentuate and further immerse us in the late-80s feel. At once a bizarre and brilliant conceit, Larrain free-wheels between a committed verite style and scenes which are quite obviously camera set-ups, while also mixing in real news footage from the time, for what is one of the most convincing combinations of reportage and narrative in recent years.
No has a rough-hewn look that perfectly surrenders the turbulent times of Pinochet’s rule. While first and foremost this is a comprehensive, muscular film about a particularly difficult period of Chilean history, No is also a supremely clever, even hilarious film about the nature of PR spin and advertising in general, examining the minutiae of packaging politics for mainstream consumption. Furthermore, Larrain makes light of the shady, shameless tactics employed by ad-execs on both sides of the political debate – particularly their use of sex, antiquated archetypes and exploitation of religion. As the “No” campaign begins to take off, observing the increasingly desperate battery of mud-slinging from Pinochet’s camp is particularly amusing, as is Larrain’s depiction of the distinctly odd style trends of the 1980s.
It’s a testament to Pedro Peirano’s (Old Cats, The Maid) script and the performances in particular that a film largely situated in offices with committees talking to each other is so thoroughly compelling from start to finish. Glimpses at Saavedra’s home life initially feel perfunctory, but prove to have actual import during a virtuoso riot scene, meshing footage from an elaborately-staged film set with footage from the real riot itself. Bernal is as reliable as ever here, ably guiding us through some of the more complex aspects of the campaign to topple Chile’s dictator.
Above all else, it’ll make you grateful for our media’s relatively free, pervasive presence. It’s inspiring, uplifting, even quietly moving to that effect, while avoiding overt politicising, though the occasional use of a score does seem at odds with the ingeniously deceptive aesthetic otherwise. Still, this exquisitely assembled film, driven by Larrain’s pin-sharp direction and Bernal’s rousing performance, turns a potentially dry subject into something uproariously funny and massively involving.
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