An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film this year, Pablo Larrain’s No is a persuasive docudrama that chronicles the efforts to unseat Chile’s dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1988. As with many dramatizations of major events, this one succeeds by focusing on one central character, which gives us rooting interest and a clear path to follow the tumultuous events that surround (and almost overwhelm) him.
Gael García Bernal is perfectly cast as a savvy advertising agency man who can sell almost anything with his TV commercials. That’s why he’s approached to help “sell” the Chilean public to vote no in an upcoming plebiscite and remove Pinochet from power. As he becomes more deeply enmeshed in this campaign, his actions and decisions have a profound impact on his personal and professional life: his family is threatened, and so is his job, as his boss sits on the opposite side of the political fence.
Director Larrain decided to shoot this film as if it were being made in 1988, a daring and ultimately fascinating choice. It was filmed with now-aged analog video equipment—the same kind Bernal’s character uses—which gives the picture a deliberately funky appearance. It also makes Larrain’s integration of archival footage less obvious.
Using a technique borrowed from cinema verité documentaries, the director succeeds in making us feel as if we’re living each moment right alongside his politically-charged characters. Even knowing the eventual outcome doesn’t lessen the suspense, or the tension that builds as our protagonist and his compatriots find their very lives endangered. Pedro Peirano based his screenplay on a stage play by Antonio Skármeta, but it’s the immediacy of the film that makes it so effective.
Bernal’s face is a mask that reveals little of the emotional whirlpool just underneath the surface; this suits his character, a cool fellow who’s accustomed to letting his work speak for him. Larrain couldn’t have chosen a better actor to take us through this amazing true story.