‘No’ offers reinterpretation of Chile’s violent past

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There is a moment toward the end of “No” when the camera lingers on Gael Garcia Bernal’s eyes for a moment as he realizes for the first time that his family could be killed by Chile’s authoritarian government.
The year is 1988, and Bernal’s character — the hip, career-oriented advertising executive Rene Saavedra — has found himself in the odd role of managing the campaign to reject authoritarian dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Saavedra’s unconventional methods are surging and Pinochet’s infamously brutal forces are now threatening his family.

Full of doubt and faith, his eyes reveal the raw emotional core of the film as he presses on, unsure of what will become of him or his troubled country.

“No,” Pablo Larrain’s astonishing third feature, is the latest film in a strong Chilean cinematic tradition to attempt to reconcile the deep trauma left in the wake of the 1973 coup that installed Pinochet and left the democratically elected president Salvador Allende dead. The next 15 years would see thousands of Chileans exiled, disappeared, tortured or killed.

Building on Patricio Guzman’s moving documentaries of post Pinochet Chile, namely The Pinochet Case and Nostalgia for the Light, Larrain instead opts for a fictional narrative to make sense of the horror.

Shot entirely with the same handheld cameras used for the 1988 Chilean news footage, the film masterfully — if problematically — blends fact with fiction into a narrative that is indistinguishable from the images of the period. Larrain has said as much as 30 percent of the film is documentary.

The effect of the film’s visual tension between fantasy and history can’t be understated. It reflects the conflict at the center of Saavedra’s story.

He is trying to sell the “No” campaign as if it were a can of soda, using pop jingles and cute slogans. The Socialist leaders of the campaign balk at the idea, arguing the campaign would sugarcoat Pinochet’s reign of terror and ignore the thousands who had died.

But Saavedra gambles that Chileans are looking for happiness, not a reminder of the terror they live in.
Saavedra’s campaign hinges on kitsch TV spots featuring dancing blond children, mimes and movie stars enjoying a life without Pinochet, chanting the jingle, “Chile, la alegria ya viene.” “Chile, happiness is coming.”

He wants Chileans to forget 15 years of horror and imagine a future that will likely never come.
It is here that Larrain’s film and Saavedra’s story meet. Both engage in the same process of selective remembrance to come to terms with, and move beyond the violent past of Chile.

Somewhere between the fantasy both men are brewing and the history they are reinterpreting, lies catharsis. Like Saavedra, Larrain has been heavily criticized for leaving out significant characters and historical forces from the film. The criticism has been unfair. While his film may fudge the boundaries of fact and fiction, the story he tells, and the effect it has on the viewer, can only happen in the twilight zone of cinema.

Saavedra’s personal story, though fictional, parallels the plight of Chileans. Saavedra, despite his own doubts about success and safety, launches a campaign against a powerful dictatorship with nothing more than hope on his side. Similarly, the Chilean people press on and head to the polls though many think Pinochet will steal the election and crack down on the masses again.

Their collective faith is rewarded. By selling Chileans a hopeful vision, however fake, of a life beyond the dictatorship, Saavedra emboldened the country to rise up.

Larrain, like Saavedra, may not be telling the complete truth, but he is offering us a deeply moving story. It may be just what we need.

Contact Javier Panzar at [email protected].