Set in 1988, fifteen years after Augusto Pinochet rose to power in a military coup aided by the U.S. government, Pablo Larraín’s No focuses on the Chilean national plebiscite, a referendum to determine whether the dictator would serve another uncontested eight-year term in office or be replaced by a democratically elected president. Under Pinochet’s tyranny, tens of thousands of Chileans were killed, disappeared, or exiled for social or political resistance. Under this genocidal police state, the government maintained strict control over the airwaves. Leading up to the referendum, the campaigns for and against Pinochet were given a half hour of air time to appeal to the public. In this fictionalization, the minority “No” coalition hires René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a silver-tongued television advertising executive, to be the creative director of their campaign. Though wary and conflicted at first, Saavedra crafts a cheeky and persuasive series of commercials and commentaries that subvert the ruling party and results in proletariat victory.
As the final episode of a trilogy centering on the dictatorship, No is the culmination of Larraín’s efforts and his most affecting and passionate articulation of the Chilean struggle. In the previous installment, Post Mortem, Larraín focused on a civil servant (portrayed by his steadfast collaborator Alfredo Castro) who finds himself enmeshed in the coup, surrounded by corpses, and on the verge of mental collapse. Castro returns here as Lucho Guzmán, Saavedra’s supervisor at the advertising firm and the producer of the incumbent’s propaganda platform. They still have to see each other at their day jobs, and as the campaigns progress the dissension escalates until it morphs into a threatening display of power. Guzmán has armed militants at his disposal; Saavedra isn’t even safe at home. Their ideologies ignite their contention as much as they undergird the individual campaigns. Though he’s thoroughly pragmatic, Saavedra assumes the populist role of an idealist, using youth culture and American imagery to sway the voters. On the other hand, Guzmán emphatically believes in his position as the protector of the old guard, to the point that it obscures his professional vision.
While the historical relevance of the story is obvious, No is not a mere historical reenactment. It has a racing pulse, a survivalist instinct. Larraín relies heavily on close-ups and an active handheld camera to emphasize immediacy and place emotional reactions in the foreground. His aesthetic choices are provocative and decidedly retro, as No was filmed on magnetic tape widely used for Chilean television in the eighties. As such, outdoor scenes are marked by blinding streams of light and hazy overtones that are as harsh as they are necessary. Matched with news clips from that period, the story’s action blends and coheres with its archival source material. Aesthetically, ugliness and kinetic energy are here the underlying drivers of change.
No is a wholly engrossing and riveting piece of work. Scenes with effusive discourse are spliced together without the contingency of exposition or the buffer of lengthy transitions. It may be dense and exhausting, but the film’s visceral impact serves as physical evidence of sorts. Weeks after viewing, the marks are still there, but any pain is assuaged by the current of black comedy that streams through the carnage. Advertising, as we know, is a funny business. Larraín wisely exploits this, and the motif becomes a through-line of the trilogy. Starting at the end of this masterful triptych isn’t a problem: it will just give you a reason to seek out Larraín’s previous works.