Reporting Jonathon Sharp
Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, No depicts the story of an advertising whiz kid (Gael García Bernal) as he helps wage a TV infomercial campaign against Chile’s long-ruling dictator.
Bernal, whose hawk-eye-gaze carries the film, plays a man with an initiative idea: that of bringing consumer advertising techniques to Chile’s political ads. Instead of highlighting how horrible dictator Augusto Pinochet’s rule is with images of people getting whacked by military police, he tells the opposition to focus on a message that excites people, gives them hope.
Bernal’s character is sort of like Aragorn in Two Towers. He gives hope, but leaves none for himself; because when you’re going up against a dictator, you live in perpetual caution of the police crackdown, fearing not only for your life but for those of your kids and loved ones. The eye of Pinochet sees all.
Depending on your politics, director Pablo Larraín’s film could seem like too much too soon after last year’s ad blizzard. For one: The story’s two campaigns are called Vote No and Vote Yes; and secondly: the Vote No camp has the moral advantage.
So if you wanted the marriage amendment to pass last November, this film might annoy you — especially considering the Vote No campaign’s logo is a rainbow. Don’t be confused, however, No has nothing to do with gay marriage.
On cinematography: The movie has loads of real-life Chilean TV footage from the late ‘80s, the period in which the movie is set. To help mesh these historical and dramatically important bits into the film, Larraín shot No on magnetic tape, which was widely used by Chilean newsrooms at the time. And the result is spectacular.
Cinematographer Sergio Armstrong gets the tape to ignite, like magnesium. The movie’s downbeat but driving tone is highlighted by white-hot sun flares and ribbons of color that radiate from light sources. Moreover, the tape’s washy, neon-faded look helps bring out the rainbow motif of the Vote No campaign.
Now back to the story. It’s centered on Chile’s historic 1988 plebiscite, which offered Chileans the chance to democratically rid themselves of Pinochet.
During the dictator’s rule, thousands of Chilean dissidents “disappeared,” were tortured, exiled, or even killed. He’s such a villain that the movie isn’t about politics, per se. It’s more of a look at what makes people vote.
And what does? Rainbows, picnics and roller skates, No suggests. In a word, happiness.
Having learned the witchcraft of consumer marketing while in exile, Bernal’s character sells his politics just like soda pop. And at the end, it leaves the viewer with a fizzling taste: What lingers is the troubling thought that you can sell any political ideology as long as you associate your politics with happiness.
While No’s direction, style and story are all Oscar-nomination worry (it didn’t win, by the way), I can’t shake the feeling that the very tactics that brought down a dictator could somehow bring up a new one.
No starts Friday March 8 at the Uptown Theater.