Film Review: Pablo Larrain’s No grapples with the nature of democracy

A review from James McBride, an Associate at Blue Star Strategies

A film more ambiguous than its title

A film more ambiguous than its title

Pedro Larrain’s No has gained exposure in the US primarily due to its nomination for the year’s Best Foreign Language Film. No is indeed a masterful period piece, meticulously evoking the atmosphere of 1980s Chile and seamlessly incorporating authentic footage from the era into its fictionalized narrative. More interesting, however, is just how relevant its exploration of political communication is for our times, shaken as they are by revolutions and mass movements organized on Twitter and Facebook.

No narrates one of the most seminal moments in Chilean history: the 1988 plebiscite that allowed for a straight yes or no vote on the continuation of General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship. In power since a bloody 1973 coup d’etat, Pinochet bowed to pressure from the international community, as well as internal regime moderates, to legitimize his rule by popular approval. Pinochet’s government offered voters a referendum vote: Sí, and he would stay in power; No, and he would leave.

For Pinochet, it was a purely tactical move; the regime controlled all aspects of the process and a loss was inconceivable. The pro-democracy opposition largely agreed, and was hesitant to participate. But despite internal disagreement, the opposition decided to play the game – and, incredibly, won. (Perhaps even more incredibly, Pinochet’s government honored the results.)

Loosely based on a play by Antonio Skarmeta, the film’s plot centers on the internal workings of the No campaign. The team is led by Rene Saavedra, a fictional marketing executive, played by Gael García Bernal, who masterminds the television ad campaign – each side is allotted a daily 15 minute time slot to make its case, each day for 27 consecutive days leading up to the vote. Rene creates a catchy slogan – “Chile, happiness is on its way” – that is credited with motivating Chilean voters to overturn the regime.

The 1988 commercial that inspired the film…and a return to democracy:

The film operates as both sophisticated political thriller and social commentary

No chillingly captures the liminal space between dictatorship and post-dictatorship: the tense, ambiguous tipping point in which anything could happen, and characters are forced to negotiate between their hopes, fears, and allegiances. We are privy to regime officials discussing their plans to “deal with” opposition leaders once the vote is over, and are reminded of the life-and-death stakes. A certain reckless but determined faith forms the emotional heart of the narrative. The No campaigners themselves seem to betray a surprise not only at the triumphant outcome, but also at their own sometimes reluctant courage.

On a deeper level, however, the film’s treatment of political mobilization – and in particular its emphasis on television marketing techniques in affecting change – raises a series of important political, historical, and aesthetic issues.

These issues go beyond the specifics of Chilean history. The scenes of a society mobilizing against a repressive authoritarian leader have an undeniable resonance with the wave of popular movements that has swept the world in recent years. We live in an age in which unfulfilled expectations for decent living standards and good government has led to explosive popular discontent across the Arab world, throughout a recession and unemployment-rocked Europe, and in a US increasingly aware of its own distressing inequality.

In this sense, the Chilean experience is a microcosm for today’s politics of raised expectations. Now, as in 1988, Chile’s comparatively rapid development has led, ironically, to impatience with the pace of social and political progress. The failures of a highly stratified education system, in particular, have been the focal point for a mass student protest movement, which came to a head in 2006 and again in 2011.

Interestingly, the current student movement is made up of what might be called the Plebiscite Generation – having come of age with no memory of a time before the transition to democracy. Camila Vallejo, the charismatic leader of the current student movement, was born the year of the plebiscite. In an echo of Rene Saavedra’s controversial use of television marketing techniques, Vallejo and her allies organize and mobilize largely via Twitter and other social media – Chile has the fourth highest per capita Twitter usage in the world – bypassing Chile’s staid traditional media.

The film’s focus on the television campaign, however, has drawn criticism in Chile

In particular, Genaro Arriagada, the director of the No campaign, is not a fan. And he is not alone – to many on the Chilean left, the film’s reduction of the campaign to a series of marketing ads subverts the true nature of the victory, which depended on an intense grassroots organizing campaign rooted in Chile’s strong labor and student organizations. They criticize what they see as a politics of mere messaging, a superficial activism that asserts the primacy of individual effort over collective action.

This critique is not without merit, and No does raise important if uncomfortable questions about the nature of Chilean democracy, and the process of democratization in general. The film does not gloss over contentious issues of historical memory. Rene consistently argues that the left should “lighten up” by focusing on the bright promise of the future rather than the crimes of the dictatorship. His positive focus does shade into the cynical – in describing the campaign’s music, he says, “I don’t want a song with art, with folklore…I want a jingle.”

The upbeat but campy images of the ad campaign depend on a vision of consumerist democracy whose rationale is about individual success rather than social solidarity. And the critics point to the character of Rene himself, a political mercenary that parachutes into Chile from his comfortable exile in Mexico in order to save democracy with a catchy sales pitch.

Yet Rene’s character, like the film itself, is more complex

We do initially see Rene as apolitical and self-absorbed, unable even to keep straight the various political parties that make up the pro-democracy Concertación alliance. But his return to Chile begins to change him. He becomes emotionally invested in the campaign; in a key scene, he explodes at his right wing boss, who happens to be leading the Yes campaign, arguing that history will remember the plebiscite as “workers against their bosses.”

Through Rene’s incipient if childish Marxism, what we are seeing is the effect of a process of political consciousness raising on a previously apolitical individual. Rene is an odd but compelling character – reserved and distant, although hardworking and driven, his internal motivations always seem just out of sight, just off screen, hidden in between the lines of the script.

His quiet intensity, fluently acted by Garcia Bernal, should not be mistaken for flatness. It is his return home and his engagement with the struggles of his homeland that open him, that make him vulnerable, that humanize him. His personal and political lives merge and take on a new intensity: he renews his connection with his young son and navigates his painful relationship with his ex-wife.

But, finally, his triumph, like the triumph of the No campaign, remains ambiguous

In the climactic scene of popular jubilation, Rene walks, silent and apparently unmoved, through the celebrating crowds, and the next day he is back at his day job, alongside his pro-Pinochet boss, selling soft drinks. His ambivalence is an apt tribute to the promise of a democratic moment that, like that of all democracies, remains imperfect and unfinished.

James McBride is an Associate at Blue Star Strategies, an international consulting firm that advises corporations, governments, and institutions on government affairs and investment strategies. 

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2 Responses to Film Review: Pablo Larrain’s No grapples with the nature of democracy

  1. Pingback: Blazing a Trail: Uruguay and A Shifting War on Drugs | No Se Mancha

  2. Pingback: US Government Crises: A Page Out of Latin American History | No Se Mancha

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