'No' keeps up the suspense
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
One reason this engrossing, fact-based Spanish-language drama has the evocative one-word title "No" is probably that it was adapted from a dramatic work called "The Plebiscite." Like most movie reviewers, I consider myself a person of relative sophistication, but I've gotta be honest with you: Prior to seeing this movie, I had very little idea of what a plebiscite even was. One reason I, and possibly you, had/have very little idea is because such a thing doesn't happen all that frequently in the United States. The dictionary definition of a "plebiscite" is " a direct vote in which the entire electorate is invited to accept or refuse a proposal." Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, to his apparently great displeasure, found himself obliged to call for such a vote in 1988: a referendum on whether he ought to be allowed to remain in power, or whether the country should hold democratic elections. The question was framed in such a way as the vote for him to continue his dictatorship was the "yes" vote, and the vote for democratic elections was a "no."
How to convince people that what seems an overt negative can in fact be a positive is one of the things that Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain's new picture, "No," is about. The movie tells the story of the 1988 plebiscite from the perspective of a young advertising executive, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who's approached by a leftist leader of the Pinochet opposition to consult on an advertising campaign for the "No" side, which, as of a certain date, is going to be given 15 minutes a day of airtime on state-run television to make its case. Bernal's character, René, is a close-to-the-vest type, emotionally, and in terms of his loyalties he's also an interesting case: An advertising man who does his job well, he's obviously not what you could call a Communist, but he has an ex-wife who's a committed radical, and his family has suffered in the Pinochet era. Adding to the intrigue is René's ultra-conservative boss, who promises Pinochet's creepy ministers that he's going to crush (the term he actually uses is far more profane) the "No" side and makes veiled threats to René even as he maintains relatively congenial working relations with him at their agency. (Alfredo Castro, who co-starred in and co-wrote Larrain's prior film, "Tony Manero," nearly walks away with the movie with this meaty role.)
The movie's suspenseful narrative is pretty engrossing. Even if you know little of Chile's history of that time, the question of just how Pinochet and his puppets and puppet masters are stage-managing this supposedly transparent process to meet their expectations remains an open question throughout, and the threats and menaces René has to face deepen in an effective conventional suspense-movie fashion. But what makes "No" really interesting is its treatment of ideas, about how media can effect profound social change and what the ultimate implications of the methods used in media may be. The campaign René helps concoct for the soulful leftists he's working for is a very pop concoction: fizzy and optimistic. "It's crap on top or crap on top of crap," his former wife complains. On the other hand, it does its job: It sells the idea that a Chile without Pinochet is going to be a better Chile. At certain points during the picture, I was reminded of something said in the early 1980s by the German philosopher Gunther Anders (a man of the left, as some would say): "Symbols can be deep, but let's stop being deep; let's be effective." From the perspective of René, being effective means giving appeals to conscience a backseat to visions of smiles and good times. It brings up some interesting questions, and those questions stay with the viewer even after René's method proves, yes, effective.
Larrain shot the movie on video -- not contemporary digital video that can emulate the look of film, but old-school videotape whose look and texture does indeed take us back to the non-halcyon days of 1980s home entertainment technology. While this does add to a feel of documentary verisimilitude, it does, finally, sap the movie of some potential cinematic dynamism. The story and the performances mean that "No" is never a drag to watch, but paradoxically enough, its self-imposed cinematic restraints inhibit it from selling itself as effectively as it might have. It's still a worthwhile picture that's very welcome in a season that largely seems preoccupied with ignoring, if not outright insulting, intelligent moviegoers.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.