Cinephiles: Happiness is Coming!

(Chile/USA, 110 min.)
Dir. Pablo Larrain, Writ. Pedro Peirano
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antónia Zegers.

♫♪Chile: Happiness is coming! ♪♫
♫♪Chile: Happiness is coming! ♪♫
♫♪Chile: Happiness is coming! ♪♫

You’ll have the jingle from No in your head for days after seeing the film. It’s no wonder that the story of the campaign it dramatizes was a victory that led Chile to freedom. No is an easy checkmark on the list of films to see this year.

Mad Men fans will find this Chilean film—an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film—a thrilling tale of the power of persuasion. Even Don Draper would drool at the cunning campaign plotted by ad-man René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal, in a bravura performance). René is enlisted by the NO campaign in the referendum on the presidency of dictator General Augusto Pinochet. The YES campaign, which aims to keep Pinochet in power, seems so confident that the plebiscite will poll in their favour that the barely mount a persuasive campaign. It’s kind of like ads from Wag the Dog that advised voters not to bother changing horses in mid-stride. Pinochet’s camp didn’t really need to put much effort, since fear of the dictator would presumably result in YES votes or abstentions from the poor and the working class.

Each side has fifteen minutes of airtime over twenty-seven days to win the referendum. René shrewdly looks at the situation and assess it much as one sells a pack of Lucky Strikes. It’s not so much the physical product that an ad-man needs to sell, but the philosophy the product represents. René, much to the chagrin of his colleagues, decides that the key to the NO campaign will not be an end to the misery wrought by Pinochet’s dictatorship. Instead, a vote for NO is a vote for the beginning of happiness. Hence the catchy jingle “Chile: Happiness is coming!”

The NO campaign quickly catches the spirit of the Chilean people. It’s their campaign, their stories, and their lives. René’s sparkly, catchy ads prove that the message of a positive campaign trumps that of a negative campaign. Hope, progress, and change are more compelling than fear-mongering and mud-slinging. (Usually.)

The NO campaign taps into the heart of social divides. Intentional or not, the rainbow-clad ads are a feat of subliminal advertising. As the rich sit idly by and promise more of the same, the growing dissatisfaction among the common people surges in a collective impulse to see the needs of the majority trump the wants of few. The promise of Chile’s future, which builds momentum throughout the campaign, entertains ample resonance with current political movements.

Director Pablo Larrain masterfully dramatizes the campaign by capturing the story through the same lenses that shot the original ads. Shooting on arcane analog video camera (ie: the kind of crappy things on which your parents shot your first birthday party), Larrain and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong recreate the campaign in the same square 4:3 aspect ratio of the ads that brought about Chile’s reform. The effect of the video blurs archival footage and dramatic re-enactment. The effect is seamless, as it’s virtually impossible to separate which parts of the film are past and which are present. No feels historical and current because the account looks wholly authentic.

The antiquated video, however, doesn’t lend itself well to the big screen. Video, simply put, looks cheap and ugly. It doesn’t capture the light nicely and it lacks definition. Moreover, it creates a dizzying motion blur that might nauseate viewers sitting too close to the screen. As my own placement in the screening room can attest, ye best stake a spot near the back in order to appreciate No to its full potential. Alternatively, this film might best be enjoyed on DVD and the small screen of a home theatre, preferably on a standard TV where high definition doesn’t betray the shrewd style.

Still, the aesthetic of No adds a striking dynamic of formalist reality. It puts the viewers in the thick of the campaign while also letting them observe at a distance. The sparseness of the style likewise lends itself to minimalist traditions of Latin American cinema, so No honours its origins right down to the materials on which it is shot. No, inspiring and innovative, is a film of the people for the people. This riveting political thriller sells an old story anew for the contemporary current of revolution. 

Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

No is currently playing in Toronto at the Varsity.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne on April 12.
It plays at The Mayfair beginning May 4.