New York Times Review of No
Try Freedom: Less Filling! Tastes Great!
‘No,’ With Gael García Bernal
NYT Critics’ Pick
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: February 14, 2013
Marshall McLuhan called advertising the greatest art form of the 20th century. In “No,” Pablo Larraín’s sly, smart, fictionalized tale about the art of the sell during a fraught period in Chilean history, advertising isn’t only an art; it’s also a way of life. That’s certainly true for the young adman, Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), who skateboards through the movie, pausing now and again to care for his son or dash off another ad campaign. When approached to help create one to oust Gen. Augusto Pinochet, he signs on. Rene may be vaguely interested in selling the country on life without Pinochet, but what reels him in is the challenge of pitching a superior product.
The story takes place in 1988, when jackets were unstructured and political repression was the cruel rule of law in Chile. That year a constitutionally mandated national referendum was held to determine if Pinochet would remain in power. Voters who supported the regime were to vote yes; those who didn’t were to vote no. It’s unclear if the plebiscite matters to Rene. Unlike his estranged wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers), a hard-eyed activist, he doesn’t register as especially political. When an opposition leader, Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), approaches Rene about working for the No campaign, he’s interested but noncommittal. Only when his boss, Guzman (the great Alfredo Castro), asks if he was “offered the No’s campaign” — a funny “Mad Men” moment — does Rene seem to commit.
Written by Pedro Peirano and based on “El Plebiscito,” a play by Antonio Skármeta, the Chilean novelist and a former exile, the movie tracks Rene as he wrangles the idealists coordinating the campaign, brainstorms with admen colleagues and, with them, creates the advertisements — each side has 15 minutes a day for a month to make its case on TV — to persuade Chileans to vote no. For the political idealists the campaign promises an end to tyranny and a democratic future. For Rene, at least initially, the No vote, with the freedom it promises, is just another consumer product, one that during the campaign he will transform from a want into a need with rainbows, white-faced mimes, dancing girls, smiling children, a basket of baguettes and a catchy jingle: “Chile, happiness is coming!”
The real No campaign was, as some Chilean critics have complained, more complicated than the movie depicts, a revelation that will shock only those who mistake storytellers like Mr. Larraín for documentarians. Mr. Larraín’s attention to period detail is of course a familiar filmmaking strategy that gives the movie a patina of verisimilitude, as does his liberal sampling from the original, often hilarious No ads. More unusually, however, he also shot the movie using a couple of rebuilt vintage Sony U-Matic video cameras. This gives it a blurred, muddy, off-putting look, at least when the movie is projected, because blowing up video images amplifies visual artifacts, including eye-gouging distortions like visible scan lines and color that looks as if it’s on the verge of separating.
It’s a suitably ugly look for an ugly time. There’s a somewhat gimmicky aspect to Mr. Larraín’s use of video that superficially brings to mind “The Artist,” in which the black-and-white images and absence of spoken dialogue are meant to mimic the filmmaking era. One difference is that while “The Artist” seeks to seduce you with a nostalgic simulation, the anti-aesthetic of “No” is initially so distracting that it can bring you out of the movie. As time goes on and the story deepens — and your interest does too — you grow so accustomed to the visuals that you largely stop noticing them or at least being bothered by them. In other words, you become used to the ugliness.
If Rene weren’t so obviously, at times comically self-regarding, and the movie weren’t so playful about his limitations, his lack of passion about the country’s future would come off as appallingly cynical. As it is, Rene is one of those compromised characters whose obvious virtues run a tight race with his flaws. In one early scene he doesn’t just stand by when Veronica is beaten by cops; he also recoils from the violence. It’s unclear if Rene is a garden-variety coward, afraid of physical harm, or whether his fear is a manifestation of a deeper moral stain. The casting of the appealing Mr. García Bernal suggests that Mr. Larraín has rigged the game, but what he’s done is create a recognizably real, sometimes uncomfortably imperfect character instead of a politically correct prop.
Rene’s seeming apathy is a master stroke because it allows Mr. Larraín (who was born 1976) to set his protagonist outside the usual ideological battle lines and invest the story with contemporary resonance. Although Rene has recently returned from Mexico (Mr. García Bernal is Mexican), he’s neither a man of the right nor the left. His father is an anti-Pinochet activist, but Rene is himself a capitalist tool and apparently a happy one. As an advertising whiz he embodies a consumer society in which everything — democracy, freedom, the self — is for sale. Rene helps the No activists wage war against one type of dictatorship, but an argument can be made that he represents another kind of tyranny, one in which freedom is reduced to freedom of consumer choice.
It’s not for nothing that the first time you see Rene explain an idea to some clients, he prefaces his pitch with the promise that the TV commercial he’s prepared for their soda communicates that “today Chile thinks in its future.” The soda spot is absurd (mimes, synths and frenzied joy), but Rene is a master marketer, and he uses the same line about Chile’s future with the No activists — noble, deeply serious men and women whose own campaign commercial is a near-parody of miserablist art. “This doesn’t sell,” Rene announces, a casually tossed off remark that becomes part of a running meta-argument about political art. And then he pulls out rainbows and smiles, and the movie takes off like a shot.