No ★★★½

In 1988, after fifteen years under the tyrannical yoke of General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean government bowed to international pressure and planned a referendum, known as the 1988 plebiscite. The vote was simple. A majority voting ‘Yes’ would ensure another eight years of Pinochet’s governance. A ‘No’ majority would mean the deposition of Pinochet and open democratic elections the following year.

No is director Pablo Larraín’s third film in a loose trilogy about the coup d’etat against Socialist president Salvador Allende and Pinochet’s ensuing junta leadership, following Tony Manero and Post Mortem. It follows the ‘No’ campaign from its inception to the vote itself along with the personal life of its mastermind Rene Saavedra, played by Gael Garcia Bernal.

An advertising executive, Bernal revitalises the dour ‘No’ campaign, which had previously focussed on the list of atrocities committed by the ruling regime, by utilising the techniques of his trade and producing a series of bright, fun advertisements pressing the concept of happiness and a fairer democratic society in the future. The campaign comes under attack from the intimidating tactics of the ‘Yes’ faction, and the political leaders of the opposing vote who accuse him of belittling the suffering and diluting the ideology and the gravity of what they were trying to achieve.

Larraín cleverly made the decision to film using U-Max magnetic tape, which was the technology used on Chilean TV at the time. This gives the film an authenticity and immediacy, and means that archive footage used throughout the movie is integrated seamlessly. Along with the very naturalistic acting, this gives the impression of watching a documentary and it is therefore very easy to be beguiled by the film’s message. This is also much of the source of the film’s humour. The zeitgeist is the only ghost that ever ages, making the adverts themselves hilarious by posterity; the music, the fashions, the now primitive methods, to say nothing of Saavedra’s inexplicable fondness for circus mimes.

The movie itself does take a while to get going, and it really doesn’t ease you in. I spent quite a period in bafflement until I got it clear in my head who was who and what relation they had to the story. What doesn’t help is that, apart from the climax, it is all very one-paced with no discernible periods of elevated action. Also, although the movie takes the time to establish Saavedra’s home life with his son and his relationship with his estranged, politically radical wife, there is never enough made of the defamatory and threatening tactics used by the ‘Yes’ campaign to give any real sense of danger. The movie has also been accused of dismissing the achievements of a grass-roots movement of canvassers and campaigners that went out and did the door-stepping and fresh-pressing that most political campaigns rely on. Larraín defended this claiming he was only aiming to show one aspect and was prioritising art over absolute reportage, which is a position I can understand.

Things really do pick up towards the end, and as I did not know the actual outcome, knowing very little about the story (I knew Pinochet was ousted, but I didn’t know when and how), I found it genuinely exciting. It is here that the movie’s careful construction is vindicated and delivers something worthy of the real-life events.

That bloody song will get stuck in your head though – be warned!

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