The medium is the message – No review


By Simon Miraudo
February 18, 2013

It’s the rare movie that celebrates marketing minds. Even the heroes of TV’s Mad Men are presented as having questionable professional ethics, what with their uncanny ability to peddle cigarettes and their willingness to promote such blights on U.S. culture as Richard Nixon and jai alai. Pablo Larraín‘s No romanticises the profession like never before, suggesting a series of advertisements produced by Chilean revolutionaries in the late 1980s were instrumental in ousting General Pinochet from his dictatorial position. This is despite them having to convince voters of the joy and freedom that will come from selecting the more negative-sounding option – No! – in a referendum. Perhaps only Chris Brown’s public relations team have had to deal with more difficult tasks on a daily basis.

Gael García Bernal stars as René Saavedra, an up-and-coming ad man with a penchant for youthful, American-influenced campaigns. He’s recruited by socialist Urrutia (Luis Gnecco) ahead of Chile’s 1988 plebiscite, in which the people will be given the opportunity to bring Pinochet’s 16-year reign to an end. The opposing parties are failing to communicate a message of singularity to the voters, and are subsequently lagging behind in the polls. In the month leading up to the election, they will have 15 minutes of mostly uncensored airtime each night to do what they please (Pinochet’s hand was forced by international pressure to allow it). Here’s the pitch: Would René be interested in offering their misguided coalition some advice?


René and his team quickly go to work on producing content that doesn’t stress their cruel leader’s violent past, instead looking towards the nation’s potentially jubilant future. The ‘Yes’ team – conveniently headed by René’s boss (Alfredo Castro) – also get their 15 minute segment, and take a more aggressive approach, striking fear into the hearts of constituents who dare to go against them (as well as ominously threatening the lives of their rivals). “Happiness is coming,” becomes the ‘No’ contingent’s catch-cry. Yet concern arises from within. In their efforts to reclaim power with so much positivity, are they letting the despot off the hook?

Adapted by Larraín from Antonio Skármeta’s play El Plebiscito, it smartly considers the conflict between a principled political campaign and a successful one. No is easily one of Larraín’s more accessible features, and a far cry from his incredibly alienating last flick, Post Mortem (set at the start of Pinochet’s rule). The picture’s 4:3 aspect ratio presentation – on grainy video that allows it to blend in better with period footage – requires a moment for adjustment. Nonetheless, Sergio Armstrong’s handheld cinematography is masterfully casual, if cinematography can be such a thing.


The incredibly charismatic Bernal is playing a composite of the two people who spearheaded the initiative, and he reminds us why he’s one of Mexico’s best ever leading men in the part. A complicated relationship with the freedom-fighting mother of his child, and fleeting references to his exiled, dissident father help to colour René Saavedra in mostly unspoken ways. Bernal and Larraín jointly create one of the more compelling protagonists of recent memory, which is simply a bonus considering the naturally enthralling tale that contains him. Larraín’s regular collaborator Castro is a wonderfully complex villain; there are, however, moments where you’re thankful he doesn’t have a moustache to twirl.

Larraín’s script is punctuated by dark bursts of humour, and the filmmaker knowingly navigates his audience to a nail-biting – though never cloying, and fully warranted – climax. He still can’t resist a bit of a downbeat ending. The party doesn’t last long in No, but the message still comes through loud and clear: Larraín is more than capable of mimicking a captivating, inspirational, Hollywood-style drama, though his camera and his sense of humour will always reveal the director’s true self.


Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

No plays the Perth International Arts Festival from February 18 to March 3, 2013.

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