Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

24 September 2012

Telluride at Dartmouth #4

I am so frustrated for not having posted yet about Pablo Larraín's No, which played at Telluride and will play at the New York Film Festival next month. You will note that though I liked this film quite a bit it is not ranked in my 2012 rankings because (as far as I can tell) it does not yet have a U.S. distributor. I should also tell you that it is, as of today, Chile's official selection for the Foreign Language Oscar.

Plus, it's a really good film. It stars Gael García Bernal (everyone's favorite Mexican actor) who I know you all remember from Y Tu Mamá También, Amores Perros, El Crimen del Padre Amaro, Bad Education and a million other movies. No's subject matter is the plebiscite in Chile that functioned as a referendum on the government of General Augusto Pinochet. García Bernal is an advertising man who runs the "No" campaign, which calls for Pinochet to be ousted.

Okay, now here's how the film works. No is shot as though it is a piece of 1980s South-American television: the aspect ration is closer to 1:1.33 than I have seen in a movie in a long time, the lighting is decidedly televisual, and the film stock looks really old to eyes used to watching things like, say, Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

At first I found this conceit irritating. I know it's a movie about the 1980s, but I don't wanna watch a 1980s movie, mom! Why can't you just film it like all the other pretty movies from 2012, thankyouverymuch. But I'll be damned if the whole thing doesn't just work after a while. We watch so much advertising footage in the course of the film, witness so much of what Chileans saw on their small screens at home, that what is an advertisement and what is reality becomes strangely blurred. So much so that by the time Gael and his son go to a political rally in the film's third act, I wasn't sure whether Pinochet's advertising team had captured the pair on video, if they were broadcasting that video on television as a smear campaign, or if it was really happening. In this way, Larraín's film manages to conflate anti-Pinochet propaganda, footage of Pinochet himself, the blatant semiotics of advertising imagery, and the narrative of No itself. The more I think about it, the smarter it becomes.

Furthermore, No, this film about the overthrowing of a dictator who proclaimed a "dirty war" on his own people, who committed countless atrocities, is unapologetically comedic. In fact, No is really funny. Larraín is able to balance the material dangers that his protagonists faced as they combated Pinochet's regime, the potential for violence that always hangs over them, with a true spirit of victory and fun. And there is something funny about Pinochet and his uniform (in the same way that Chaplin proves that there is something funny about Hitler in his delightful burlesque). This directorial skill seems to me to be a rather extraordinary one, a feat rarely pulled off by even the most experienced of directors (I am thinking now of that painfully unfunny fowl in Mr. Spielberg's War Horse.) That No is also an entertaining piece of historiography, an important political commentary on the reasons why people vote against their own interests, and a catalog of Pinochet's crimes against the Cuban citizenry is truly remarkable.