the film exerts an extraordinary, galvanising power
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larrain came to international attention at Cannes in 2008, when his film Tony Manero premiered in Directors’ Fortnight. Set in Santiago, during the dismal mid-period of the Pinochet dictatorship, it followed middle-aged bachelor Raúl Peralta (Alfredo Castro, who also wrote the screenplay)—a man so obsessed with John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever that he imitates him in a variety of amateur talent-show performances, accompanied by a small group of friends almost as lonely and desperate as himself.
Yet what might easily have been jokey or glib, was in fact played absolutely straight. As it had to be: in addition to fastidiously tending to his white suit, Raúl was, we soon discovered, also a murderer. And as such, the exemplar of a certain type which flourished, like a weed, under the dictatorship—right down to the doubled identity, the concealment of one’s actual activities behind an assumed front. The careful segregation of private and public selves.
The director followed this triumph, two years later, with an even better film: Post Mortem, again starring Castro—this time, as a hospital mortician obsessed with his next-door neighbour, a local cabaret dancer. The setting this time was the September 1973 coup that bought Pinochet and his thugs to power, and Castro’s Mario was a silent, socially awkward functionary who Asks No Questions, even when he’s called upon to record a verdict of suicide upon the corpse of the murdered Salvador Allende. (Though the half-smile that barely flickers across his face, in that instant, communicates everything we need to know about his character.)
Larrain framed the action in a series of disorienting widescreen compositions, making breathtaking use of off-screen action and negative space. Chilly and macabre, it played like a ghost story, with Castro’s spectral demeanour suggesting a man haunting his own life—and its essentially Gothic sensibility was made apparent in a devastating, real-time climax, which paid homage to Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.
Now Larrain has completed what he calls his 'Pinochet trilogy’ with a film that is at once the most overtly political of the three, and the sunniest. No describes an actual historical event: the 1988 plebiscite designed to extend Pinochet’s hold on power. So blithely confident was the general of his re-election, that he committed a grave mistake: he allowed fifteen minutes per day of airtime to his opponents, to put their case.
But, rather than trot out the Left’s usual case, the statistics of dead and missing Chileans, the degradation of social services, the damage done to the country’s international reputation, a young advertising agency employer (played here by Gael García Bernal) hits upon the idea of making something uplifting, buoyant, a little tacky—almost in the style of a Coke commercial, right down to the choirs of smiling ordinary citizens.
Is it superficial? Absolutely. Is it trivialising the suffering the regime has created? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it catches hold, and becomes a full-fledged social phenomenon (the TV spots, one Chilean recalled, 'were like watching the World Cup’). One which finally unseats the dictator.
What’s thrilling here is the sense the film communicates of an actual political campaign, a battle being waged through advertising. But what’s refreshing is its lack of bombast. Bernal’s René Saavedra is no ideologue; on the contrary, he’s cynical and opportunistic. (When we first see him, he’s pitching TV spots for a soft drink called, with exquisite irony, Free.) His father was a dissident—and has, we learn, been exiled for his troubles—and his ex-wife is a Leftist (to get a kiss out of her, he has to say the name 'Allende’), but René, a cautiously apolitical man, takes the account mostly out of intellectual curiosity—how would a political campaign based on simple positivity work? Could it succeed? And if so, could its lessons be transposed to other 'products’? The challenge appeals, more than any outcome it might engender.
Only gradually, as the referendum draws closer, are his deeper sympathies aroused; and only when his own family are menaced, once the tide begins to turn, does he seem to properly comprehend the depths into which his country has descended, and the true magnitude of the opportunity now confronting it. His gradual awakening to political consciousness—his essentially unwitting heroism—precisely mirrors that of his nation.
Directorially, Larrain’s most audacious choice here is to shoot the entire film on period-appropriate U-matic videotape, a format favoured by television stations during much of the 1980s, which enables the actual No television commercials (included, rather then reproduced here) to blend seamlessly with the dramatic tale constructed around them. He’s experimented with visual texture before—Post Mortem’s desaturated palette and foggy lighting owed much, he admitted, to the fortuitous discovery of some old Soviet film stock and lenses—but never quite so overtly; as a result, the film, the degraded visual surface, all light flares and flattened contrast, takes a few moments to reconcile oneself to.
Yet once that leap is made, the film exerts an extraordinary, galvanising power, due in part to its momentum, the sense of a people shrugging off years of oppression, and also to some superb performances. Bernal is excellent as the opportunistic René, and Larrain’s usual leading man, Alfredo Castro, reappears as Luchó Guzman, the reptilian head of the advertising agency for whom René works—and a man even more cynical than his protégé, running the Yes campaign with the jaundiced eye of one intent, above all, upon ensuring his own survival, come what may.
To call it the weakest of Larrain’s trilogy is perhaps unfair. It’s less astonishing, but no less formally fascinating, in its own way; his filmmaking is every bit as adept. Unlike the preceding instalments, the director did not work from an original screenplay: this is adapted from a play—The Referendum, by Chilean playwright Antonio Skármeta, better known as the writer of Il Posto—and as such, boasts a neater dramatic arc than those films: its surface may be muddied, but its emotional trajectory is as clear as any Hollywood social-justice flick, from Erin Brockovich to Philadelphia.
'A little lighter, a little nicer,’ urges René, as he directs the 'No’ commercials. It’s not his philosophy—simply a means to an end. Nevertheless, the director seems to have taken this maxim to heart. At last, after all those murders, all those bodies, we have a happy ending.