Augusto Pinochet, the benevolent-looking Chilean general who overthrew Allende in 1973—putting an end to a long spell of democracy–and oversaw seventeen years of terror, responsible for thousands dead and tens of thousands arrested, tortured and “disappeared” died in his bed (though under house arrest) in 2006. Wrangling over extradition procedures while he was holed up in London before being returned to Santiago didn’t give the families of his victims the closure of seeing him pay for his crimes. At least, they and the Chilean people had had the satisfaction of kicking him out of office with a resounding “no” to the referendum organized in 1988 by the government which hadn’t entertained for a minute the possibility of defeat. How that “no” came to pass is the story of the eponymous film by Pablo Larrain, based on a short play by the same name.
Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, excellent as always, is cast as René Saavedra, the P.R. man who, although not particularly political himself, is drawn into this battle which he fights efficiently, with the help of marketing tools similar to those he uses for launching soft drinks, chewing gum or refrigerators. His campaign resorts to fun slogans, catchy jingles and shots of happy families on a picnic or at a ball game. The campaign was disparaged by the Pinochet gang and not taken seriously until it left the dictator in the dust and stunned Chileans took to the streets in disbelief and exhilaration.
After the unforgettable “Nostalgia for the Light” by Patricio Guzmán, “No” reminds us of the fierce military regime that crushed Chileans at a time when similar juntas ruled in other Latin American countries.
Larrain selected a peculiar cinematography for “No,” the only Chilean film so far to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film (losing to Haneke’s “Amour.”) In a daring decision, the director used throughout old U-matic video camera and tapes that provided images blending with the extensively used actual videos of the time. The format takes getting used to for audiences accustomed to widescreen but ultimately works perfectly as a time machine.
Larrain was given something of a cold shoulder in Chile, his own parents having voted “yes” to Pinochet in the plebiscite, but his film manages to be both thrilling entertainment and historical reminder that repression may sometimes be only a uniform away.