No (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

film No_75It’s weird to think that the future of a dictator’s reign could be decided by such a simple vote.

 

 

film No_500

As with most foreign films, the majority of America has had to wait a while to see Pablo Larrain’s Academy Award-nominated film No. So while we are well into 2013, it should be made clear that No is a 2012 film. I make that distinction because 2012 was a great year for movies about true stories that seemed to stretch credibility—I’m thinking of Argo, Bernie, Compliance, The Imposter, Searching for Sugarman—and now No can be added to the list. The film tells the story of an election that took place in Chile in 1988. The vote was very simple: Citizens were asked whether Augusto Pinochet should remain in power, yes or no. Our protagonists are a group of advertising executives who create a series of political commercials trying to convince voters to vote no.

The stakes are incredibly high. It’s weird to think that the future of a dictator’s reign could be decided by such a simple vote. What’s more, there is a widespread fear that the election could be fixed, and even worse, some theorize that Pinochet could win even without fixing the vote. The importance of the subject matter is made clear, so that the audience is completely taken aback when the “No” campaign’s strategy ends up being more in line with soda commercials than generic political ads.

What’s amazing about No is that, in addition to telling this story in a compelling, suspenseful, and amusing way, it also manages to say something about our current times. Advertising has gotten more and more ridiculous, and the media shapes people’s lives to an extent that would have been unfathomable in 1988. This movie satirizes that fact, and somehow manages to have a positive outlook on it.

You could say that No is more cynical about politics. We see plenty of political ads from both campaigns, and as one becomes more successful, the other starts to imitate it. But people see past this deception, and so the movie ultimately has an optimistic view of that, as well. It certainly shows that selling a political idea based on hope and change has always been effective, as it obviously still is today.

The film is centered around a character played by Gael Garcia Bernal. Bernal is a great actor, the kind who can hold the screen without saying a word. There are long sequences in No in which we simply watch his character think. Whether or not we can read his mind, we are always waiting for his big breakthrough, and we are always wondering what he will do next.

Shot on video cameras that would have been available in the late ’80s, No has a distinct visual style. One benefit of this is that it looks completely unlike any other movie being made these days. The image is not especially pretty, but its unique grittiness has an effect similar to that of 16mm film. It also allows the filmmakers to seamlessly intercut real stock footage from the time.

It’s hard to watch No without thinking of Argo, a film I love. Both are period pieces about a tumultuous time in foreign lands. Both are about a bearded hero who comes up with an unusual plan for how to solve a problem involving the media. Both mix tension with humor in a way that really shouldn’t work, and yet it does. The fact that I can draw such close comparisons without either film hurting the other is a pretty remarkable thing. Both would make my best-of 2012 list. | Sean Lass

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