Political movies are always a risky venture. Not just because of the threat they may present to the filmmaker from hostile adversaries, but more importantly, because the movie created may result not so much in art as one-dimensional dogmatism. This is not to say that political films cannot be be passionate in the service of their cause, but it is rare indeed when a filmmaker with a political focus can make an attempt to understand the ideology of somebody with whom he does not agree, and treat all his characters with respect.
This capacity to transcend a visceral temptation to exploit a theme which can provoke strong emotions is one of the many reasons that “No”, directed by Pablo Larraín, from a screenplay by Pedro Peirano, based on the play, “Referendum” by Antonio Skarmeta, may be the best Latin American film of the year.
“No” is currently being presented at festivals in different parts of the world, earning prizes, and it is hoped that it can attract a large audience and inspire filmmakers. The theme is the plebiscite permitted by the dictator, Augusto Pinochet in 1988, as a concession to international pressure, to allow Chileans to decide whether they should return to democracy and free election
In retrospect, the answer seems obvious, and today, not even conservative Chileans advocate a return to tyranny, but in 1988 the question provoked as much anxiety as it did hope. As the film demonstrates, the Left, with its own internal divisions, was very suspicious of the authenticity of the proposal. There were many who did not believe it would be an honest election, but rather serve as an excuse to permanently end the debate. Some argued that despite that, the plebsicite was of value, at the very least to initiate a discussion of the idea.
In the midst of all this, an apolitical advertising executive (interpreted by the iconic iberoamerican actor, Gael Garcia Bernal), is asked to offer his talent to the service of the “No”, that is the pro-democracy campaign (the fact that the Pinochet regime permitted the plebiscite only under the condition that its side be designated in the affirmative “Yes” is an index of its cynicism).
Like many citizens of Chile at the time, the executive is reluctant to engage in political matters; he has a comfortable life and a son to care for. However, when he becomes a witness to a brutal act of police violence against his fellow citizens, he commits to the cause.
He soon discovers that his own boss at the agency is active in supporting the “Yes” side for Pinochet, but rather than fire the executive, he retains him as an employee all the better to monitor everything he is doing.
“No” is commendably honest is presenting all the internal conflicts of a political campaign, and provocative as well in exploring the psychology of propaganda. What is more effective? A positive campaign that highlights hope and optimism, or an angry campaign that condemns abuses and injustice?
The “No” campaign encounters all manner of obstacles, including threats and harassment to its individual participants, as well as censorship. And though the film does present the grim facts of the Pinochet regime – the disappeared, the tortures, the exile of thousands of Chileans to other countries – the filmmakers are honest enough to present the facts in support of “Yes” cause, such as the violence perpetuated by Leftists terrorists, and to treat the supporters of the status quo as real people, not caricatures.
Since the conclusion is a historical fact, not a narrative surprise, the focus is not on the “what” so much as the “how” as well as the “why”. That the humor incorporated into the narrative does not undermine the seriousness of the film, but rather enhances it, is an index of its success as a work of art.