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TELLURIDE, Colo. — No, a Chilean historical drama directed by Pablo Larrain and starring Gael Garcia Bernal, had its first North American screenings here at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday and Saturday. Saturday night’s screening was an adventure: held at the outdoor screening area, the film — which had its world premiere back in May at Cannes, where it won the Art Cinema Award — was only about halfway complete when rain started to pour down viewers; it is a testament to the quality of the film, however, that virtually nobody left.
The film unfolds in 1988, when Augusto Pinochet, who had ruled Chile with an iron fist since coming to power in a 1973, caved to international pressure and called for a public referendum to determine whether or not he should receive an eight-year extension of his rule. Virtually everyone in the country assumes that the results will be fixed, but Renee Saavedra (Bernal), a youthful ad executive who recently returned to the country after years of living in exile, decides to take on the challenge of rallying the public’s support against its dictator through the “No” campaign. Proponents of both “Yes” and “No” are given 15 minutes of TV time for consecutive 27 days leading up to the referendum, and, it turns out, its outcome hinges upon which side makes the most of that time.
The strategy of Pinochet loyalists is quite simple: scare people by reminding them about how bad things were before he came to power (essentially the old argument that “the enemy that you know is better than the enemy that you don’t know”) and by suggesting how chaotic things might become if he were to give up power (Pinochet repeatedly insists that “democracy is coming” and will be preferable to a return to socialism). Moreover, they reason, the only people who will show up to vote are “Yes” supporters, since “No” supporters fear retribution and/or assume that their vote wouldn’t count anwyway. But Saavedra’s persistence — even in the face of direct threats to him and his loved ones — eventually begins to pay off. His upbeat jingles, slogans, and ads focus more on the possibility of a positive future than the reality of a negative past — they can essentially be paraphrased as “Yes We Can,” with a tinge of “No We Won’t” — and begin to light a fire in the belly of the Chilean people as the referendum approaches.
Larrain, it should be noted, made a very bold decision on this film. In order to realistically recreate the look of the ads that comprised the real “No” campaign (some of which are intercut into the film), as well as a feel of the general era from which they emerged, he decided to shoot the entire film on U-matic film stock using a pair of reconstructed U-matic cameras, which create the look of VHS footage playing on a low-def TV. Consequently, No doesn’t look pretty, but it certainly looks gritty, which is probably the most appropriate adjective to describe life in Chile at the time in which the film takes place.
Casting Bernal in the lead, however, was his smartest move — even if Bernal’s decision to sport a mullet in the film was not — as the 33-year-old Mexican is one of the finest actors of international cinema. If this film doesn’t offer proof enough, then check out Amores Perros (2000), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001), Bad Education (2004), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), and Babel (2006), to name just a few of his best showcases. He totally commits to his parts, and, looking into his big eyes during a film, one senses that they almost possess him.
This is Larrain’s third film. His second, the wildly eccentric 2008 flick Tony Manero, was Chile’s submission for consideration in the best foreign language category at the 81st Oscars; it ultimately did not make the final five. During an intimate dinner that Sony Pictures Classics held in celebration of its five films at the fest — No, Rust and Bone, Amour, At Any Price, and The Gatekeepers — Bernal, my tablemate, told me he hopes that this film will also be named as Chile’s Oscar entry, although that much has not yet been determined. He added that, while he hasn’t believed entirely in many of his films, he is unreservedly proud to be at the festival with this one, to which he devoted a great deal of work and heart.
Later on, the conversation shifted to the magic of the movies — in short, the power of images, like those employed in the “No” campaign, to change the way we feel about the world. He said that he recently took his young son to see Madagascar 3, in the middle of which the toddler asked him if he had brought along diapers. Bernal said he was shocked by the question, since his son had been potty-trained quite some time before. When he pointed that out to the boy, though, he was told that the issue was not one of not being able to go to the bathroom, but rather one of not wanting to, for fear of missing even just a few moments of the movie. Bernal said he could relate to his son’s wonder, noting that he would much sooner give up making movies than watching them.
Here’s hoping, for our sake, that he never has to make such a choice.
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