Pablo Larraín, the writer/director of “No,” shyly introduced his work to the New York Film Festival audience by mumbling a few thanks into the microphone and quickly taking a seat. Having seen the filmmaker’s prior two efforts, “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem,” which make up a spiritual trilogy with “No,” I was not surprised that he spoke this way. Those films are spare, both in terms of action and dialogue. They move with quiet intensity, punctuated by short moments of shocking violence. So imagine my alarm when Larraín was followed by a festival programmer who mentioned that “No” served to lighten the mood at Cannes earlier this year. Given that “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” are heavier than lead, I struggled to believe what I was hearing. But as it turns out, the programmer was right.
“No,” based on a true story, takes place during the reign of the Chilean president/dictator Augusto Pinochet, 15 years after “Post Mortem.” It focuses on René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), an ad executive who hatches a plan to defeat Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 referendum. Saavedra’s approach to campaigning is a 180 from the typical, gloom-and-doom style that the anti-Pinochet party initially requests; he creates advertising for the eponymous No campaign that features plenty of rainbows and choirs singing about “happiness to Chile.” The campaign proves to be surprisingly effective, which perturbs Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), the head of the agency where Saavedra works and advisor to Pinochet’s reelection campaign. Pinochet’s camp will not go down without a fight, and their methods prove to be dangerous.
In stark contrast to the two other films in Larraín’s Pinochet trilogy, which were characterized by dread and gloom, “No” is disarmingly funny and lighthearted — a tone that is bolstered by film’s scrappy, documentary-like style. Shot on an ancient U-Matic cassette-tape camera, “No” looks like an extended home movie recorded during this turbulent era of Chilean history. As such, colors run together, bright light shines directly into the lens, and the footage is charmingly grainy. The scenes of the No campaign filming their TV commercials have an especially spontaneous, free-wheeling quality that lends the movie a joyful optimism that was (understandably) lacking in “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem.”
The acting has an equally off-the-cuff air to it, especially Bernal’s superlative turn in a dryly humorous role. The actor brings out the silliness of the No campaign, which takes an approach that is borderline saccharine in its positivity, through his deliberately understated line delivery. (This is not to say that the film ever lampoons the No campaign; on the contrary, Larraín portrays it in a nearly ethereal light, with Bernal figuring as the savior.) Further, Bernal is able to facilitate the film’s seamless transitions from comedy to sobering depictions of history. In one scene, the actor hilariously suggests that the campaign feature more mimes, and in another, he endures a beating from a police officer with quiet dignity. Though the film is primarily a comedy, it has enough range that it requires a great amount of skill on Bernal’s part. The actor’s work feels less like a performance and more like a complete embodiment of an individual; he is no less than the soul of the film.
In recounting this extraordinary true story, Larraín illuminates the humanity at the center of the political turmoil — the antidote to “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem”‘s suffocating explorations of the inhumane violence engendered by Pinochet’s dictatorship. The fact that “No” closes the trilogy on an ebullient note reflects that Larraín is ultimately an optimistic cultural observer and filmmaker. The movie is his celebration of Chile’s return to the kind of democracy that allows him to create such vibrant art, in spite of the seemingly insurmountable corruption that was in the way. “No” is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the term: it earns its adoration without a hint of pretension or flourish.