Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: "No"

Director: Pablo Larrain
Runtime: 118 minutes

The muted visuals of Ben Affleck's Argo work on an aesthetic level in part because they call to mind the faded footage and photographs of the time period. Yet that film still possesses a certain Hollywood sheen (I don't mean this as an insult). If you're looking for a film that really goes all out in recreating a certain aesthetic, then look no further than Pablo Larrain's No. Currently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (it hails from Chile), Larrain's third film won't ever win any awards for its visuals, and that's entirely on purpose. Shot like a home movie from the time period (the late 80s), it is easily one of the ugliest films to come along in quite some time. Yet once one adjusts to the choice Larrain made, the craftsmanship still comes through to create a stirring political drama.  And while it may not be quite the triumph it's been billed as, No is still worth a look, even if it sometimes feels too simple and safe. 

Larrain wastes no time in setting up the historical backdrop. After 15 years in power, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, under international pressure, calls for a vote on his regime. If the majority votes 'Yes,' Pinochet will remain in power for eight more years, and if the reverse happens, then Pinochet's regime will end. The campaign will last a mere 27 days, during which the Yes and No sides will be allotted 15 minutes of airtime per day. Joining the No campaign is advertiser Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), who we first meet as he presents a borderline satirically cheery ad for Coca Cola. What starts off as a seemingly simple assignment soon takes over Saavedra's life as he tries to balance somber honesty with pandering emotional appeals. 

In one sense, No shares a central thematic arc with, of all things, Zero Dark Thirty. The protagonists enter into an assignment thinking of it merely as work. Yet as time progresses, they grow more and more invested, only to be left uncertain once their goals have been accomplished. Yet for Saavedra, the shift is more unsettling, because unlike Zero Dark Thirty's Maya, he isn't really prepared for how much his life will potentially change, and how extreme his opposition will become. Hired thugs show up outside of his home. Pinochet supporters vandalise his house and brand him a Marxist intent on selling out his fellow countrymen. And the opposition doesn't just stop with the No campaign's political rivals. Even within the No camp, there are those who question Saavedra's tactics. When Saavedra pitches an idea to a room full of No supporters, and explains that he is fully intent on using the language of advertising, one man leaves in disgust. 

As much as No is about a very specific moment in time, it also hits on a more universally important shift across the world: the increase of flashy, sensationalist advertising in political campaigns. Larrain has tapped into something special with his subject matter, because he never has to stretch to get the larger point across. This is a film that tells its story, and has the integrity to let the larger implications brew in the backs of people's heads, without ever becoming heavy-handed. Almost. 

What throws No off is that it engages with its compelling subject matter in a rather safe way. Despite a few bursts of low-key humor, No's script has very little bite in its commentary, satirical or sincere. And as enjoyable as Bernal is in the central role, the film gets wishy washy when it comes to focus, and can't seem to decide whether it's more interested in Saavedra as a man, or only in so far as he relates to the No campaign. There are mild links between the two, but they feel tenuous at best. When Saavedra's big, internal moment comes, it almost feels out-of-left-field (contrast this with Maya's final scene in Zero Dark Thirty, which fits perfectly both narratively and thematically). It's not that these scenes are jarring. Larrain's direction ensures that the whole film feels perfectly cohesive. The problem is that they don't all feel entirely fleshed out or even compelling in the moment. Bernal (and the rest of the cast) handle it all well, but once No reaches its stirring climax, the aftermath can't help but feel a little empty. 

Ultimately, No's subject matter ends up being more compelling than the actual film. For all that Larrain accomplishes as director, he is unable to bring anything more to the surprisingly light script. The easy way to close out this review would be to say that No is "definitely a YES," but I can't go quite that far. It's a worthwhile film with efficient storytelling (it feels roughly 20 minutes shorter than the actual length), and nice performances. However, No's execution rarely digs beneath the surface of its rich material. So say "Yes" to No, but not without a few reservations.

Grade: B/B-

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