Chile (2012) Dir. Pablo Larraín

In 1988 Chilean military dictator General Augusto Pinochet had been in power for fifteen years but after much international and national pressure, he agreed to hold a referendum to decide his future as the country’s leader. The Chilean people were given just two options – “YES” and “NO”. It was agreed that both sides would be given fifteen minutes of TV airtime every night to run campaigns and garner support. Hot shot ad executive René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is approached by the NO campaign to head their creative team, much to the chagrin of his cowardly boss and YES supporter Luis “Lucho” Guzmán (Alfredo Castro). Saavedra is up for the challenge but soon finds that the Government have no intention of playing fair.

The phrase “based on a true story” always brings out the cynic in many film viewers who either take the dramatisation aspect too seriously thus cry foul over the slightest issue to pose a threat to the “facts” or they simply dismiss it as propaganda. Pablo Larrain’s NO could be guilty of incurring such hasty reactions from some quarters, being as it is a dramatic retelling of this pivotal moment in Chilean history, but Larrain’s insistence that his film is “art and not a documentary” and few complaints have been raised against the film’s content. The only major objection came from Genaro Arriagada, who directed the real NO campaign who lamented the lack of recognition of the grass roots campaigns, jettisoned in favour of the TV campaign.

The character of René Saavedra is fictional but much of the footage shown that makes up both campaigns along with the news footage of the day is genuine, adding much weight to the verisimilitude of the project. Also notable is Larrain’s decision to shoot the film using low definition, ¾ inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape to recreate the picture quality of the original footage, allowing his own material to fit in flawlessly. Therefore, anyone watching this on DVD and panics when the pictures shows up in 4:3 with slight ghosting and a pale, overexposed yellow hue synonymous with low budget “foreign” films of the day, your TV and DVD player are fine, it’s an intentional facet of the film.

To the story and Saavedra’s ideas rub the old guard up the wrong way as his modern progressive thinking is lost on their stodgy old minds. Saavedra’s plan is not to hit hard with political rhetoric and public denouncements of Pinochet but to create a more positive and deliberately happy and colourful idealistic future for Chile. His campaign logo idea is a rainbow to represent the various parties next to the word “NO” which is balked at by almost everyone, including Saavedra’s partner and political activist Verónica Carvajal (Antonia Zegers), who is the mother to Saavedra’s young son Simón (Pascal Montero). When the YES campaign hits back with hard hitting and stern faced rebuttals claiming the opposition are lying and proffering their version of the truth, the NO response would be a humorous music video!

It’s not long before Pinochet’s people start with the intimidation tactics towards Saavedra and the others involved with the NO campaign, but brains beats brawn and they live to fight another day. The YES side shoot themselves in the foot by refusing to air a NO segment one night and are immediately chastised for their blatant censorship, effectively handing the victory to the NO side. But the fight is a long way from over and the tactics become deadlier.

A passing knowledge of Chilean history might be required going into this film but Larrain’s story delivers a comprehensive enough and fascinating tale that not only engages the viewer but sufficiently informs them in the process. The genuine archive footage is used to great and chilling effect, especially those of anti-Pinochet protestors being beaten by the military, facts that the YES campaign ignores while suggesting the NO supporters are the true villains of the piece. The NO videos are awash with dry wit and scathing sardonic commentary that clearly went over the heads of their opposition but not, it seems, of the heads of the oppressed public.

The cinema vérité style camera work takes us into the heart of the action, dragging us into every tense and gritty frame and making us a part of the cast. While this creates a sense of emotional attachment to the NO campaign, there is no room for objectivity. Instead of being a mere spectator to the on screen proceedings it is difficult not to enter this film with the preconceived support the NO campaign, especially when the nominal antagonist (again appearing via archive footage) was a real life dictator with an appalling history to his name. Even so, Larrain does keep his focus on the events of the campaign as opposed to delivering an anti-Pinochet rant, since the general’s CV speaks for itself.

Gael García Bernal is a superb actor and he is once again the everyman hero of the tale here. However because of his distinctive looks which aren’t very versatile (beard or no beard it’s still him) he has gotten to the point that every time he appears in a film he is just Gael García Bernal. That isn’t a criticism just an observation. In a cute production factoid, a number of the actors representing the YES campaign in this film actually worked on the real NO campaign this film is based on!

NO may not be a documentary but has the same lasting effect of one, sweeping the viewer up and dragging them along for the ride as we enter the volatile minefield that is political campaigning. It’s a very positive and hopeful celebration of the will of the people and how a unified population can make a difference. An inspiring and inspired watch. Recommended!