Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: NO

Rene is asked to make an ad for the "no" case in the upcoming referendum. He lives in Chile. It's 1988. General Pinochet has bowed to international pressure by calling the referendum that will ask the people if they want more of his brutal dictatorship for another ten years. The right don't trust Rene as his father is an exiled dissident. The left don't like him either as he's an ad man. He's iffy about doing it anyway as no one thinks the referendum is going to do anything more than expose more dissidents for the jails and drains. So he says ok.

At first, this isn't such a bad job. Rene looks at the dogmatic effort the left have put together and sees what must be done, clearly enjoying the hustle of the sell. His Pinochet-supporting boss knows Rene is at least consulting for the NOs and tolerates it, confident that even his star performer won't be able to dent the quo. Rene goes along with all of this, mocking up a more commercial commercial for the NOs who don't get it and think he's a stooge for the bad guys. And the more he coasts around this task the more noticeable become the unmarked cars filled with beefy humourless men and trucks of soldiers never far away.

That's it. No more tip toes. He gets the crew out guerilla style, marshalls a jingle with a hammering refrain and shoots around the military presence, under cover and through the trees. By air time he's got something that makes the YES case look staid, paternal and oppressive.

An advertising arms race later and the mighty groundswell NO rally is broken up by muscle and water canon. What happens? Wiki is your friend.

Pablo Larrain shot this on period-correct news gathering betamax and the look is grainy and takes getting used to. The choice of format is not artsy affectation. First, it allows the audience an intimacy with the events depicted. The 4X3 frame is constantly crammed with information and we are kept close to the images we need, just like news vision. The original ads sit in the frame naturally, part of the weave, not apart from it. It feels uncontrived. It feels like news unfolding like daily life. The daily life just happens here to be lived in a dictatorship that doesn't care who knows about it.

Jean Luc Godard, whose life lessons are as important to cinema as any film he made, famously declared that a film's method should match its sentiment; if you set up for Gone With the Wind you won't be making Tout va BienNO doesn't play like a Godard film, you'll find three Aristotelean acts without eye strain, but it does run on clear conviction and at no point strays from it.

To have run with convention and shown a tortured genius breaking through and ending with the finished triumphant ad would have been acceptable but a lot less fulfilling. The team here keep things resolutely day-to-day. The ad airs about half way through the film and only partially fills the screen. Each side was given fifteen minutes of air time in the week leading to the poll. It wasn't one big band against another but a seven days of mounting conflict. The heroes here aren't centre screen, they live in the houses outside of the tv studio who decided for themselves to vote no. Pinochet's tyranny is incidentally visited in scenes of sanctioned bullying here but most of it rolls out in daily life. That is this film's strength.

That strength is compounded by a powerful cast headed by Gael Garcia Bernal who embodies the film he is part of by allowing us to see what he forbids himself to express. His response to the events of the finale is rightly sobering as he walks through the crowd and understands where they have been and the work that now must be done. He's the only one not partying like it's 1973.

Top marks, too to a political film that resists the easy temptation of self-reference. There are formidable forces at work to maintain the ordinariness of the big things happening on screen and the audience is allowed to contemplate that without the kind of blaring signposts that an Oliver Stone or Mike Leigh would plant everywhere. It's about propaganda, it doesn't play as propaganda. It doesn't need to; it already knows what it is and knows you will, too.

PS - This is another missed MIFF pick that I've caught up with. Man I missed a good festival.

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