Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross  ---
At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss No as a member of a long line of platitudinous films dramatizing social and political movements of the 20th century. Films like Gandhi and Milk too often reduce their complex political atmospheres to simplistically motivated acts of martyrdom and common-sense morality, and mistake condescension for sympathy.
Yes, No is one of those films. No, it should not be dismissed, at least not for that.
In 1988, Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet caved to global political pressure and held a plebiscite. It asked citizens: “Si,” keep Pinochet, or “No,” do not. No is a fictionalization of the ad campaign  for the “No” side, which necessitated the cooperation of numerous conflicting political parties.
The most obvious tipoff that the film is not interested in hero worship is its hero, a fictional advertising executive. Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), who was for a time exiled from Chile, is sympathetic to his cliens, and agrees to serve as an ad consultant for the 27 nights that “No” will be allotted 15 minutes of TV time for persuasion, to be followed by 15 minutes of marketing, for “Si,” and then 23 and a half more hours of state-run programming.
Though Rene clearly has some political investment in the campaign, he is disinterested in any result except for the successful sale of “No” as a product. And so he spearheads advertising that downplays mention of the state’s  exiles, tortures, and many mysterious disappearances, and instead fundamentally offers “Happiness is on the way” and some lighthearted smearing.
It’s in this conflict, between educating the public in principles and ideologies or achieving those principles by means of shallow pragmatism, that No hits paydirt. Its political sympathies are ter unambiguous (after all, it’s not called Si), but its semiotic loyalty is elusive; there is, after all, something insidious about promoting even the noblest of aims in the same way that Coca-Cola promotes soft drinks.
But for much of its running time No is a bit more conventional than that, and resembles one of those films I mentioned in the first paragraph. Rene’s home life with his son and non-committal girlfriend receive enough dramatic mass to pull some interest, but keep too thematically detached and irresolute to really go anywhere.
An even worse cop to convention is the treatment of antagonists. The scenes involving “Yes” proponents are almost valueless: an early meeting among Pinochet’s people over campaign plans ends with a sinister speech about capitalism’s political usefulness that is artlessly on the nose; and Rene’s coworker-turned-”Si” rival is cartoonishly malicious.
What really sells No as more than a trite inspirational drama with fleeting glimpses of the “truth vs advertising” issue is its formal makeup, which director Pablo Lorrain nails in full. Most obviously, the entire film is shot on video — the same Betacam video format, in fact, used by all of the ads for “yes” and “no” alike. The format’s conspicuous cheapness constantly reminds us of the film’s own “packaging” as a piece of persuasion, and because it and the campaign ads share identical aesthetics, the movie acts as a sort of meta self-commentary.
Its formal qualities pick up even more speed when the film employs discontinuous editing. Characters have a conversation in a restaurant and, when the film cuts to a park, seem to be still working on the same sentence.
Unfortunately, this gesture of discontinuity is largely dropped, but a later scene provides an even better moment when Betacam news footage of a “No” assembly transitions into Rene at the rally, well out of sight of the news cameras. The change in point of view from state television to protagonist is completely unnoticeable — it’s both fitting and disconcerting that in the final scene we see Rene do much the same thing he always has, both before and while he helped a country to say “No.”


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