Pablo Larraín’s ‘No’ might hinge on its bold visual aesthetic, at least for some viewers. Shot on retrofitted cameras that mimic those used for Chilean television in the 1980s and presented in an aspect ratio of 4:3, ‘No’ does not resemble modern cinema much. it can be jarring initially, but once gotten used to, the effect is kind of remarkable. The entire film looks like it might be an episode of some old documentary on public access television, and it blends absolutely seamlessly with the archival footage that gets mixed in. It is tempting (and at times a little irresistible) to believe in its story and characters as if they were completely accurate portraits. The framing and performances contribute to this effect in a fundamental way, as well – ‘No’ just has an incredible air of honesty.
This is not the case, of course. ‘No’ most certainly oversimplifies the historical events it depicts in the effort to create a cause/effect narrative that fits snugly within a two-hour limit. Its relationship with the truth is complicated, and the actual history of the period ought to be discussed alongside serious critiques of the film. But as a piece of drama and a commentary, it is smart, thought-provoking, emotionally compelling, and very finely crafted. While its narrative is not strictly factual, ‘No’ succeeds due to its willingness to honestly represent the complexities and ambiguities of human nature.
‘No’ takes place during Chile’s 1988 national plebiscite, held to determine whether or not Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship would continue. Those in favor of his rule voted “yes” while those against voted “no.” The film centers on an advertisement creator named René (Gael García Bernal) who is hired to help with the “no” campaign, and the narrative follows his team’s creation of the ads that would ultimately lead to the ousting of Pinochet.
René is not a politically motivated individual, and this is one of the film’s most effective maneuvers. His sole interest in the campaign is creating a product that sells to the most people, which keeps him at a distance from both the audience and the passionate people around him. This gives ‘No’ a great ability to comment on issues both past and present – the ever-increasing power of television on political campaigns is an important one, but ‘No’ also addresses (among other things) the difficult, oftentimes painful task of compromising political ideals to affect meaningful change.
Those around René find his campaign’s cheery message to be profoundly insulting to those touched by the horrors of Pinochet’s rule, and as audience members, we may be hard-pressed to disagree. But René refuses to budge. His only other passion, as far as the film is concerned, is for his son, and that relationship is a key to humanizing him. He is both a calculated, focused capitalist and a caring father.
Director Pablo Larraín embraces the difficulties inherent in these situations and risks a protagonist that the audience may not sympathize with. But by acknowledging these imperfections and the conflicts that arise from them, ‘No’ is able to speak more capably and sincerely.