NYFF: Pablo Larrain’s No and the Marketing of Freedom


Today the tireless Nick Pinkerton is back with a look at the fascinating — and hard-to-Google — No.

Directed by Pablo Larrain
Screens Friday, Oct. 12th at 9:00 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 13th at 3:00 p.m.

Against Argo‘s opening weekend, the NYFF has (one imagines, unconsciously) counter-programmed another film with the art of writing political fiction as its subject. Pablo Larrain’s No begins during the build-up to the Chile’s 1988 plebiscite, a nationwide referendum in which a vote was held to determine if President Augusto Pinochet would return to office for another eight years, having held onto power since his 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende. The vote was to be cast on a simple ballot: “Yes” for the return of Pinochet, “No” for something else.

If this arrangement seems awfully lenient for a dictatorship, it should be noted that, first, the inevitability of ballot-box stuffing was accepted as inevitable, and, second, the national “debate” platform was two fifteen minute television slots in which the oppositional viewpoints could be voiced, after which regularly-scheduled programming–that is, flagrantly pro-Pinochet programming–would resume for the remaining 23 ½ hours of the day.

Our point of entry into this piece of history is René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), an advertising exec introduced pitching a campaign for a cola called “Free”–an apt introduction to a movie that’s none-too-subtle in its rhetoric. Saavedra’s father was an exile, and consequently Saavedra has spent much time outside of Chile, but now he’s established a comfortable middle-class home for his own son, and is too much a keep-your-head-low careerist to play dissident, to the evident disgust of his estranged, street-fighting wife (Antonia Zegers).

Saavedra is nevertheless approached for his expertise by a representative for the seventeen motley opposition parties to act as a consultant on their “No” TV spots and help streamline their dissent into a single cogent message that will crack the calcified consensus built by dictatorship.

Once sucked in, the first thing Saavedra does is jettison the prepared doom-and-gloom agit-prop–montages of police crack-downs, facts and figures on Disappeared protestors, a complete enumeration of the Pinochet regimes abuses. Instead, Saavedra concludes that “Happiness is our concept,” and proceeds to design the most inanely positive “No” campaign imaginable: A rainbow logo, insipid stock images promising future bliss, Choice of a New Generation fizz, a clap-your-hands singalong jingle, celebrity endorsements (Christopher Reeve! Jane Fonda!)…

By contrast, the Pinochet campaign, designed by Saavedra’s boss (Alfredo Castro), looks distinctly out-of-date, all red-baiting and fear-mongering. A child endangered by an oncoming steam-roller evokes memories of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 golden oldie “Peace Little Girl (Daisy),” while the General’s on-screen demeanor has all the cult-of-personality magnetism of a locally-produced commercial for a mattress store. Though Pinochet was a despot of the Right, the phenomenon that No sets out to dramatize is approximately the same that eroded the senescent dictatorships of the Left in Eastern Europe around the same period, post-Perestroika: The triumph of youth-oriented MTV showmanship over the old line of patriarchal-prosperity propaganda.

A cursory YouTubing confirms that much if not all of what’s seen of Saavedra’s “No” spots is, in fact, the actual commercial material from 1988, the behind-the-scenes filming of which are here reproduced. One suspects that these documents have been sufficiently scrutinized by a generation of Chileans to create a rich body of humor around their marginalia–the inexplicable use of a mime, the most un-Chilean baguettes at a countryside picnic–details that No tees off against.

Much as Saavedra uses the jargon of commercial advertising to sell democracy to Chileans, Larrain’s film works within an aesthetic template of its own: The contemporary language of handheld cinematic realism. It’s a familiar enough conceit, but Larrain introduces an extra element by shooting on 3/4″ Sony U-matic magnetic tape, the standard format of television news before 1990 or so. It looked noticeably bleary when spread across the big screen of the Florence Gould theater–there was a palpable tension in the crowd when the first curiously drop-shadowed text came on-screen, suspicion of another DCP faceplant–but this allows Larrain’s new material to mesh quite seamlessly with c. 1988 footage of actual police crackdowns and pro-democracy assemblages, an accomplishment in cinematic verisimilitude situated anxiously at the halfway point between Medium Cool and Forrest Gump.

What one takes away from No–certainly more than the scenes of Saavedra’s home life, which doesn’t register much more deeply than as the obligatory establishment of Something to Fight For motivation–is the film’s sense of existing within mediated history, and its ethical meaning.

For some of the old guard in the opposition, as with Saavedra’s wife, the seductive vapidity of the “No” campaign, however pragmatic, is an unconscionable betrayal of the bloody legacy of resistance. The ambivalence these voices stir up is the film’s presiding tone until the end, when Chileans, like the former residents of the Soviet Union and its satellites, step out of dictatorship… and find themselves citizens of a whole new simulacra. (Nick Pinkerton)