A friend who saw it in Cannes apprised me of the situation: No was Pablo Larrain’s bid for commercialism. If using an old-fangled 1983 U-matic video camera to shoot a 2012 re-creation of the 1988 overthrow of Augusto Pinochet, commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, is Larrain’s way of achieving wide-ranging acceptance, then by all means, conform away.
No is the final installment in Larrain’s unplanned “Pinochet era” trilogy that began with Tony Manero in 2008. According to the director, “Post Mortem speaks of the origin of the dictatorship, Tony Manero about its most violent moment, and No is about the end.”
The fate of the Chilean people rests in the hands of Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a soda pop–selling ad exec hired to quarterback the “No” campaign. Rene is hired to create twenty-seven 15-minute infomercials aimed at ousting Pinochet. His job is to thwart the competition’s bid to turn the military dictator into an attractive product used to lure old women and young voters, the country’s two undecided demographics.
Too often, the grainy, mismatched archival footage in most based-on-true-events docudramas distracts the eye. The period re-creation is painstakingly meticulous, as seamless as anything on display in Woody Allen’s equally chameleonic Zelig. Larrain works backward, choosing to conform his narrative to the existing footage by shooting the entire film on the antiquated three-quarter-inch cassette stock. Not for one second could I detect where the newsreels left off and Larrain picked up. It appears to have been shot by an amateur Chilean news crew in the mid-’80s. In that sense, No could be the most beautiful, purposefully ugly film ever made and the director’s way of commenting on the current vogue of shaky-cam cinematography.
The bid for mass appeal paid off: No earned a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at this year’s Oscars. Even with an international superstar in the lead, it’s doubtful that an absurdist comedy with this subject matter will find a large audience. That is exactly why I urge you to say “Yes” to No. With Antonia Zegers, Larrain lifer Marcial Tagle, and the incomparable Alfredo Castro as Rene’s soda-swilling, Pinochet-pushing superior.