“No” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. 1:50, R, four stars out of four.
In 2009, one of the last films to get a first run at the Orpheum Theatre was a strange and unsettling little movie from Chile called “Tony Manero.” It followed a sad-eyed serial killer named Raul, who was obsessed with “Saturday Night Fever” and dreamed of winning a John Travolta lookalike contest on TV. In a Chile under the thumb of General Augusto Pinochet, where the police were more concerned with quelling dissidents than protecting the citizenry, Raul was free to indulge in both of his obsessions — murder and disco dancing — with impunity.
Director Pablo Larrain made Raul’s ridiculousness intertwined with his depravity, which is part of what made “Tony Manero” so disturbing. “Manero” ended up being the first part of a trilogy by Larrain about life under Pinochet, and the third part, the Oscar-nominated “No,” arrives in Madisn this week. It’s also a strange mix of the horrific and the silly, but this time silliness is on the side of the angels in a brilliant and highly entertaining film that’s part political thriller, part media satire.
The year is 1987, and Pinochet has been in power for 15 years. He wants the country to look forward, forget about the dead and the disappeared, and he wants the rest of the world to recognize him as a legitimate political leader, not a brutal thug. So he takes the unusual step of scheduling a referendum, a simple “YES” or “NO” on Pinochet’s rule. He figures he can’t lose — most of his opponents think the election is a sham, anyway. The entire election campaign will last 28 days, and every day both sides will get 15 minutes of airtime on Chilean television to make their case. (Say what you will about Pinochet’s crimes, but that sounds awfully refreshing in a country where we’re already talking about candidates for 2016.)
To make their case on television, the “NO” camp reaches out to a flashy young advertising executive, Rene Saaverda (Gael Garcia Bernal). Rene’s father is a political dissident exiled in Mexico, and Rene has steered clear of politics, making flashy, cheesy commercials for soft drinks. At first, he’s reluctant to have anything to do with “NO” campaign, but eventually signs on. His boss, played by Alfredo Castro, who was Raul in “Tony Manero,” is already working for the “YES” campaign.
The central joke of “No” is that Rene is a creature of advertising, of jingles and slogans, cute puppies and cleavage, into a deadly serious political campaign. When the “NO” camp shows him their first attempt at an ad, featuring horrific footage and statistics of all those Chileans tortured and murdered, his response is unequivocal: “It doesn’t sell.” Instead, he comes up with a hliarious mash-up of Coke and fried chicken commercials to sell democracy to the people. Bernal very deftly and amusingly plays Rene as sort of a vacuous advertising guy, a divorced dad who still rides a skateboard to work, whose political consciousness slowly gets reawakened.
From there, “No” is by turns comic and dramatic as it shows the escalating media arms race between the “YES” and “NO” camps, as Rene’s simple, optimistic campaign starts to gain traction with the population. On the one hand, Larrain is clearly making fun of the banality of advertising, how even the most serious issues have to be reduced to easy-to-digest sound bites for a population — you want to depose a dictator, but you don’t want to bum anybody out. On the other hand, there is skill and craft involved in advertising, and as silly as some of the images that Raul comes up with are, when we see them on the TV screen, they’re effective. Finally, the people get a turn to create their own propaganda.
Larrain made the intriguing decision to film “No” as if it was made for 1987 television, shot in pre-letterbox full frame on crummy video. The effect is jarring at first, but ends up being very clever, because it makes the transitions from new to archival footage (much of the original ad campaign is used in the film) absolutely seamless. By the time we get to a scene where a “NO” rally is attacked by truncheon-carrying police officers, we’ve been so immersed in this world that the horror and chaos of the moment feels even more immediate.
In the end, “No” leaves us with a satisfying mix of emotions. The film ends on a triumphant note, but is it a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism, or of one catchy slogan over another? Even Rene doesn’t seem to be sure.