Tuesday, April 30, 2013

No (2013/Chile)

Julien Faddoul

**** (4 stars)

d – Pablo Larrain
w – Pedro Peirano   (Based on the Play by Antonio Skármeta)
ph – Sergio Armstrong
ad – Estefania Larrain
m – Carlos Cabezas
ed – Andrea Chignoli

p – Daniel Marc Dreifuss, Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain

Cast: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Luis Gnecco, Antonia Zegers, Marcial Tagle, Néstor Cantillana, Jaime Vadell, Sergio Hernández, Alejandro Goic, Diego Muñoz, Paloma Morenoa

What is it about the art of the motion picture that makes people do, think and feel things that they never imagined they would? That’s a loaded question. The cinema affects the mainstream human being in a way unlike any other art-form. Before the cinema, intellectuals used to pontificate that the theatre was the greatest art-form because it called upon all the other art-forms that preceded it. Well, the cinema is one further, because it calls on the theatre and all the other art-forms. Even Leo Tolstoy famously became extremely jealous when he saw his first motion picture: “But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience – it is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.”

I can’t help but also recall Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, who, when asked why people found making fun of movies so entertaining, he said: “Because movies, unlike other art-forms, aim to present God’s idea of the world.” I guess every kind of artistic expression has the power to change or enlighten people, no matter what it is. But if Leni Riefenstahl had worked in any other medium – although I’m sure she would have been a great artist regardless - I doubt something like Triumph of the Will (1935) would be as powerful.

The advertising world owes everything to the power of the cinema. In Latin, ad vertere means "to turn the mind toward”. Advertising is a form of communication for marketing and used to encourage, persuade, or manipulate an audience (viewers, readers or listeners; sometimes a specific group) to continue or take some new action. Most commonly, the desired result is to drive consumer behavior with respect to a commercial offering, although, as we all know, political and ideological advertising is just as dominant. In summarizing it like that, if movies are God’s idea of the world, then advertising is The Devil’s.

No, the fourth film by Chilean director Pablo Larrain and the third and ultimate film in his purported trilogy of impenetrable Pinochet-era satires, is a recounting of the political campaign of the historic 1988 plebiscite of the Chilean citizenry over whether general Augusto Pinochet should have another 8-year term as President and dictator, and how advertising tactics were widely utilized in the process. However, No is a great movie – not good, great – and thus, it is about much, much more. In the fashion of the great movies that were Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, Sidney Lumet’s Network and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show before it, No is an encapsulation of the manipulative nature of the media and its rapidly escalating proportions, but it can be interpreted in many other different ways.

Mr Larrain himself, despite having family ties to the Chilean right-wing, is very anti-Pinochet, and No can be taken as a dedicated report and/or warning of the passionate, David-and-Goliath kind. It can be taken as a comment on television’s (or technology in general)’s increasing pervasiveness in our lives. It can be taken as an instance of situationists’ desire to disrupt the spectacle, to remove the false tinsel that we are conditioned to see and reveal the real tinsel beneath. It can be taken as a debate on the means of artistic expression and whether, in art, its style that matters, not sincerity. And it can also be taken much simpler than any of those, as a story of a working man with a family who had simply had enough.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a modish, young advertising executive – his route to and from work is on skateboard – whom we first see pitching a new soda as “the future of Chile.” His father was a famous activist, and his estranged wife, played by Antonia Zegers, is a freedom fighter with jail time and bruises. Rene, by contrast, can’t be bothered. What intrigues him to the campaign initially is its potential as an advertising challenge, but he then becomes so captivated with the campaign that he, against the wishes of his right-wing boss, played by Alfredo Castro, goes from merely its consultant to its captain. The campaign takes place in 27 nights of television advertisements, in which each side had 15 minutes per night to present its point of view. The NO team themselves are inflicted with every kind of pressure, from the ongoing debates with each other of stylistic merit to the cruel, private intimidation from the YES campaign. If you are familiar with modern Chilean history, you know how this turns out, but even so, every frame of the film is charged with such fermentation, such rhapsody, that one becomes afraid to move in one’s seat. The screenplay, by Pedro Peirano, is based on the unpublished play by Antonio Skármeta.

No is an ingenious film and part of its genius is in its execution. Mr Larrain and his cinematographer Sergio Armstrong have shot the film in low definition, 3/4 inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape, which was widely used by television news in Chile in the 1980s. It is both jarring and – especially for anyone who was alive and had a television back then – extremely stirring emotionally. In doing this, the film goes further from being a comment on the beauty and/or manipulative state of the media, to a comment on the effervescence of the cinema. It imbibes us and traps us into this cinematic lead-blanket that pervades the picture. Furthermore, it allows Mr Larrain, and his editor Andrea Chignoli, to cut back and forth with seamless precision to the actual footage of the time, including the commercials themselves. It is a gorgeous trick to behold. Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda, Richard Dreyfuss and even Pinochet himself all appear as themselves through archival footage.

The ensemble in the film is a dream. Every actor is utterly specific and exact of what he or she is about, but none more so than Mr Bernal. What has always categorized Mr Bernal has been not the fact that he’s an incredibly talented actor, but the fact that he’s an incredibly smart actor. One can’t help but feel liberated when presented with his aching, concentrated eyes and oscillated, impulsive smile. Along with great performances in Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Motorcycle Diaries and especially Bad Education, Mr Bernal can now add another to that list. There are scenes in the movie involving microwaves and toy trains that in another actor’s hands would be insignificant; in his hands they are sententious.

Because No is a film that can’t not be trumped under the heard of a David-and-Goliath camp, it will no doubt be subjected to criticism of its dubiousness. This has already happened in Chile, where the film has received a mixed reception at best. Genaro Arriagada Herrera, who directed the NO campaign, accused the film of simplifying history and in particular of focusing exclusively on the television advertising campaign, ignoring other crucial roles. I believe that because of the film’s cinematographic format, people might interpret the film as documentary-like, which I do not believe for a second is Mr Larrain’s intention. The movie is a dramatization and a great one.

Another misinterpretation might be that the film celebrates and glorifies the advertising world, something that we probably shouldn’t be doing. This is beyond a ridiculous claim and I can’t help but feel that these people were not watching close-enough. Maybe Mad Men is to blame? In any regard, No is a brilliant film. There are seemingly inconsequential scenes of characters hardly saying a word to each other that have more meaning in them than in any scene in any Hollywood blockbuster I’ve seen this year. After I had sat down in the cinema an elderly couple sat behind me. The man said to the woman “This is the last time you drag me to a foreign flick”. When the movie was over I overheard him saying “That was f***ing fantastic!” Chile! La alegria ya vieeene!