All the usual caveats apply. No is in Spanish with Greek subtitles, and is only being shown for four nights (tonight is the second) at the Friends of the Cinema Society in Nicosia. Such is the hold of the multiplex on the local market that we almost feel the need to apologise when we go for something different.
A couple of additional caveats also apply when it comes to this Chilean film by Pablo Larrain, Chile’s best-known director. First, the look. The film – set in 1988 – is deliberately shot in a sometimes blurry, sometimes sickly colour, meant to approximate the look of old videotape. Second, the politics. Cypriot viewers, especially older viewers, still tend to think in terms of Left/Right ideology – we were, after all, ruled by the Communist Party till a few months ago – and many will nod approvingly when an anti-Pinochet film shows newsreel footage of the General’s reign of terror. “2,110 political executions”; “1,248 disappeared detainees” read the captions as a folk song plays plangently and we watch people weeping and protesting.
Yet the film doesn’t actually side with such easy emotions. “This moves me just as much as it moves you,” claims Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal) – but in fact Rene knows the footage is worthless, and urges his comrades to move beyond it. Rene is an advertising man, hired by the ‘No’ campaign in the 1988 referendum; Pinochet, having been in power for 15 years, has bowed to international pressure and appealed to the people of Chile to approve or reject his regime – and it’s widely assumed that the vote is fixed, but the ‘No’ team still get a sliver of TV time and have to decide how to fill it. Old-school Lefties want to “raise awareness” – hence the folk songs and footage of demonstrations – but Rene is on to something more sophisticated. He senses that Chile has changed, and senses that Pinochet may have dug his own grave.
The dictator has brought prosperity. He’s made the country modern. Half the population still live in poverty (free-market policies breed inequality), yet Chile is rich and confident; “This doesn’t feel like Latin America,” marvels a visiting Argentinean. Here’s the thing, however: the richer a country becomes, the less it wants to think about politics – and the more it craves the laissez-faire freedom that comes with democracy. Rene’s stroke of genius (which is also the film’s ingenious twist) is to make the ‘No’ campaign happy. He employs advertising jingles instead of folk songs. He shows postcard-perfect people smiling, having picnics, eating baguettes. There are ponies. There’s dancing. There’s a mime, for goodness sake. The campaign is dumbed down, like a Coke ad – which is why it becomes a hit. Pinochet’s one undeniable achievement turns out to be his Achilles heel.
The comrades are furious. “I don’t like to talk about democracy as a product,” grumbles one. This is a campaign that tries to silence our suffering, rages another. “Nobody eats baguettes in this country!” Rene is told – but it doesn’t matter, because they want to eat baguettes. No is among the sharpest political films in years, sharp enough to realise that democracy is most likely to emerge not from conflict but from comfortable apathy. It’s surely no accident that our own age – which is huge on individual freedoms, at least in the West – is also an age of middle-class people who basically want to stay home and play with their iPads.
Too bad the film isn’t as sharp structurally as it is politically. Larrain gets sloppy, and muddles the message (I assume he didn’t have a choice, since the film is based on fact): the ‘No’ campaign isn’t entirely happy-clappy – some of their TV spots do indeed aim to “raise awareness” – just as the ‘Yes’ folks aren’t entirely out-of-touch (their initial plan is to turn Pinochet into a star, playing up his smile and “blue eyes”). Various sub-plots, like the harassment faced by Rene and his team, are tossed in without being developed. No makes its point after an hour or so, then spins its wheels.
Still, the point is clear – and the film’s insights into late-80s Chile also apply to our well-off little island, with its increasingly apolitical new generation weaned on iPads and Coke ads (though the crisis has changed things slightly, fuelling ideologues especially on the Right). The ending is gloriously sly, with Chile having moved on and Rene working on the ultimate sign of a modern society: an ad for a TV soap opera! It’s rare to find a movie so alive to political irony – and of course No is funny as well, dealing in the cheesy detritus of 80s advertising. Any time a mime appears in a motion picture, that’s a guaranteed chuckle. No caveats there.
DIRECTED BY Pablo Larrain
STARRING Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers
In Spanish, with Greek subtitles.
Chile 2012 118 mins