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By Daniel Lammin
14th April 2013

There have never been a shortage of films - especially foreign films - that recreate or revisit historical events, and so common is this genre that it's very rare to come across something surprising or different. Last year had a few gems, such as 'Argo' or 'A Royal Affair'. In these examples, the surprise was in the material, while the craft, though accomplished, was still classic filmmaking. Chilean director Pablo Larrain, however, has stepped outside of that tradition with his Oscar-nominated film, 'No', using cinematic tricks and textures to recreate the tumultuous 1988 Chilean referendum in a manner we have rarely seen before. This is a film taking the quest for realism to a whole new level.

After years of torture and abuse against his people, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet has been forced into a referendum, where the people of Chile will choose between his continued government, a 'Yes' campaign, or a democratic election, a 'No' campaign. In the lead-up, the dictatorship imposes a rule in which each campaign is allowed only one one-hour block of television advertising per night, and carefully places the 'No' campaign slot as far from the prime time as possible. Knowing they need a different approach to have any hope at winning, the 'No' campaign turns to the world of advertising, and to Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), an up-and-coming advertising artist. What he proposes, however, is something radical and completely unexpected, totally at odds with the public and political expectations of the campaign. This may win them the referendum, or throw them into the open jaws of Pinochet and his erratic tyranny.


From its first frame, 'No' is a visually striking and distinct film. Larrain relies heavily on archival footage, including news footage and the campaign videos themselves. Rather than accepting the lack of consistency between that archival footage and film shot today, he chooses to shoot the entire film in U-Matic 3/4, the film stock used at the end of the 1980s during the referendum. It takes some getting used to at first. We don't get a widescreen image with digital clarity, realistic colours or surround sound. The square image is muddy and dirty, with bleeding colours and often a lack of focus. Once you become accustomed to it, though, it becomes a truly thrilling visual experience, and you can't help but applaud Larrain and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong for their daring. The distancing incongruity between archival footage and new material is completely absent, and you would be hard-pressed to spot the difference. The film also moves along at a considered pace, and while it occasionally lags, especially with the freneticism of the cinematography that makes it hard to focus on much visual detail, it hits its stride on numerous occasions with stirring and powerful results. 'No' is a lean film with a clear story to tell, and everything Larrain throws in, including the excellent and incredibly entertaining screenplay by Pedro Peirano, is there to serve in the recreation of this major event and this revolutionary campaign.

'No' is also aided by a tremendous ensemble cast. Gael Garcia Bernal has long been one of the most striking and fascinating actors of his generation, and it's great to see him on screen again, especially dealing with a subject he clearly has tremendous passion towards. Saavedra is a man at odds with an older generation still stinging from the pain of a tyrant's fury, especially with a campaign concept that leaves the past behind and looks forward to an optimistic future without Pinochet. Bernal doesn't try and hide his character's frustration and youthful ignorance, understanding how important these traits are for understanding how the campaign came into being. On the opposite side sits Alfredo Castro as Luis Guzman, Saavedra's boss and leader of the 'Yes' campaign. Every second of his performance exudes the arrogance and confidence of the Pinochet regime, a mocking smile constantly planted on his face. His performance is all the film needs to suggest how dangerous an opponent the 'No' campaign is facing.

'No' is a visually striking and distinct film.

It's a startling coincidence that 'No' should appear in cinemas so soon after Ben Affleck's 'Argo'. Both films explore a decisive moment in international politics mostly forgotten by the West, but chose to place them as backgrounds for a more intimate and personal story. Both also understand the power of humour when exploring sensitive and disturbing material - the moments following Saavedra's presentation to the rest of the campaign is a golden moment of unexpected humour, and is only one of many. It only helps to make the film even more affecting and powerful, as it builds towards the referendum, and the decision that will mean life or death for those involved and their loved ones.

It might sound like an imposing or potentially dull subject for a film, but 'No' is an electrifying film, more than deserving of its Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Pablo Larrain has crafted a memorable piece of cinema, completely distinct from anything else we are likely to see for a long time. In a time where we are pushing the technologies of cinema further and further into the future, he turns around and uses the tools of the past to recreate an important historical moment for his country. And central to that story is the groundbreaking campaign itself. I've avoided saying much about it here, if only to maintain the great surprise the film offers for those unfamiliar with it. Don't hesitate, follow your curiosity, and enjoy the many rewards 'No' has to offer.

RELEASE DATE: 18/04/2013
RUN TIME: 1h 58m
CAST: Gael Garcia Bernal - Rene Saavedra
Alfredo Castro
Antonia Zegerz
DIRECTOR: Pablo Larrain
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