It’s always interesting watching non-English films, especially when the focus is on something outside the Anglosphere. No is a historical/political thriller based on a play. The film follows the actions of the fictional René Saavedra, a popular advertiser, and the role he plays in shaping the campaign for the No vote in the 1988 plebiscite which removed Augusto Pinochet from office. It is a fairly artistic film, so it is not exactly a documentary, and even received criticism from members of the Chilean resistance for certain inaccuracies.
The problem that all historical and political films have is that the ending is already known. Although Chilean history is not too well known in Australia, most people would be at least vaguely aware of the existence of the South American military dictator. A quick five minute touch up on the transition to democracy would be beneficial before watching the film, but it isn’t essential.
However, getting to the problem at hand, the end result is still a historical fact that can be acquired easily: Pinochet was removed from office by a plebiscite in 1988. Therefore, tension is not created by the question of whether or not the dictator stays or goes. Instead, the tension has to be created in other ways, and it is created admirably.
The plot of the film is fairly straight forward – the creation of the ‘No’ campaign, and the role that René has in influencing the campaign. He uses his knowledge of advertising to alter the opposition’s campaign from a “doom and gloom” scenario highlighting the fear that existed in a dictatorship, and changes it to a campaign that focussed on creating a happy and hopeful future. On the side, there is also a minor story focussing on a rivalry between René’s employer and himself, as well as a small story focussing on René’s failed relationship with the mother of his son. All three plots are packed with tension, even though the outcome of the primary plot is already known.
The film is shot with a camera that closely matches the style of film from the 70s and 80s. Aside from adding to the overall artistic feel of the film, this “fuzzy” look gives the film a seeming authenticity to it, bringing the viewer much closer to the events portrayed than they would otherwise have been. Indeed, director Pablo Larrain estimates that roughly 30% of the footage used in the film is authentic footage from the time period, further blurring the lines between documentary and film.
Another way the film creates a sense of authenticity is the way the camera moves like an “eye”. Rather than rapidly cutting between shots of people talking, with a camera on each person, the camera acts like a third person, turning from one speaker to another. As well as adding to the authenticity, this makes the audience feel much closer to the characters on screen.
One problem with the film is its rapid changing of scenes, and unsure timeline. The rapid changing of setting and scenes, with no particular indication of when they were set made the film feel more like a collection of events with no fixed timeline than a narrative. Events seemed to simply flow into one another, creating confusion as to what was happening when in regards to the actual plot.
Now, an understanding of Chilean history may have been beneficial for this, but the viewer was expecting two big upbeat moments, which would have been the first airing of the advertisement, and then the final election result because of the campaign. In this film, there was only the election result, which left the viewer feeling slightly dissatisfied during the middle of the film.
The confusion over the timeline was probably the only real criticism that can be levelled from an artistic view of the film. From a historical perspective, it is always important to be reminded that it is not gospel, and that there will be inaccuracies. Artistically, the film is masterfully done. The opening credits are an interesting touch – they are similar to a book, or an essay, in format (with the page turning, and no non-diegetic sound).
There isn’t much music throughout the film, with the soundtrack consisting primarily of the advertising “jingles” and songs associated with the campaign (with the exception of the very ’80’s Chilean stadium rock anthem for the drink “Free” in the opening), although there are one or two pieces of purely soundtrack music. This lack of music does add to the film – silence can often help wind up the tension much more effectively than music, and in a political thriller that has an older feel about it, a soundtrack covering everything would have detracted from it. The songs that are used, however, are very well done and are reflective of the scenes they are accompanying (for example, the “jingle” associated with the campaign when they are filming).
A quick note should be that the film does touch on some deeper issues, such as focussing on the role of propaganda and how it can be used to manipulate events. A David and Goliath story, with “David” (René, and the opposition to Pinochet) having limited resources, fear of imprisonment or death and having to overcome the fear that the regime sets in place. It also has René creating a campaign that attempts to break the cycle of fear through creating an upbeat and “fun” campaign, with the rainbow symbol over the “No” being symbolic of this turn away from the “doom and gloom” approach the opposition intends to use.
In conclusion, the film is very good. Definitely an artistic piece, it is engaging and a worthwhile watch. It has drama, both personal and political, and deals with issues such as the role of propaganda and how it can be manipulated. The style of filming creates an almost “authentic”, albiet slightly amatuerish feel for the film. Overall, a good film, definitely worth going to see, especially if you like David and Goliath stories, political dramas, or artistic foreign films.
Aidan Johnson is a dork who enjoys history, politics and conquering various parts of medieval Europe.