A Song of Joy and Despair

in 65th Cannes Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

Once upon a time, there was a dictator who wanted to launder his image. His imperial vanity and his combat-bootlicking counsellors had him convinced that the people he had oppressed for fifteen years actually wanted him to stay, out of love or -more realistically- fear. So, in order to legitimize his regime and please the international community upon which his ultra-liberal, commodity-exporting economy depended, he organized a referendum.

On the 5th October, 1988, the Chilean people had the chance to vote for the first time since the military coup of 1973 — not counting a sham referendum in 1980 to approve a new Constitution still in force. The choices were “yes”, Augusto Pinochet stays in power for another eight years, or “no”, he leaves and the first democratic presidential elections take place in 1989, which is what eventually happened. Many opposed the idea itself, since it meant playing by the roles, and anyhow, there was no guarantee that it would be a clean process or that the militaries in power would acknowledge a defeat. But despite all the risks, it was an opportunity that had to be seized.

Pablo Larraín’s No, presented in the Directors’ Fortnight, addresses the political campaign before the referendum and, specifically, the way the opposition designed its communication strategies when it was allowed to express itself officially (on television, for fifteen minutes a day during one month) for the first time since 1973.

Four years after Tony Manero impressed Cannes, and one and a half years after the Venice première of Post Mortem, No closes a trilogy that portrays Chile in the times of the coup and under the dictatorship. This last entry, written by Pedro Peirano and based on a play by Antonio Skármeta, is by far the most realistic of the three. Metaphor gives way to recreation, the psychopath is gradually adapted into society, and the amorality becomes a vindicated political position.

Creating fictional characters that summarize the traits of several people in each situation, No describes how the opposition ended up, as the filmmakers put it, defeating the right-wing with the right-wing’s own tools, thus establishing the basis of Chilean society, politics and mentality for the next twenty-five years.

Gael García Bernal plays René Saavedra, a creative director in an advertising agency, who is enrolled by an opposition leader (Luis Gnecco) to work for the “no” campaign, whereas his reactionary boss (Alfredo Castro, of Tony Manero and Post Mortem) is actively involved in the “yes” field.

The spectator is plunged into a palpable present, rather than the well-made depiction of the past, thanks to the use of archive footage, the thorough production design, and the choice of shooting in U-Matic to match the television texture of the times and to obtain the “dirty image” that the times required, according to Larraín. But that present feeling comes especially from the fact that the political discourse that lead the “no” option to victory is not very different from the one held today in most of the world. It is as perverse as it is necessary (it did get Pinochet out of absolute power, after all), and is just as well used to sell a soda, democracy, or a new TV show.

René Saavedra is perfectly aware of what he is doing in ideological terms, by using those precious fifteen minutes to promote “joy” instead of finally claiming truth and justice. But he feels there is hope, that despite their reasonable distrust, there is a chance they might win, and he is certain it can only be by offering this dream of the joy that would come (as the jingle “Chile, la alegría ya viene” promised), and not by arousing awareness.

Even though we know the outcome, No succeeds in building up the tension and anxiety that sustain a panting rhythm. The dialogues reflect the confusion of the times, the suspense scenes remind us of how fragile life was under a regime that was still resorting to terror, and the editing matches the urgency of a historical moment in which everything was at stake.

No is based on hope, but is terribly despairing. Had it been shot 20 years ago, it would be the account of a magnificent triumph. Today, it is a bitter confirmation, especially in the context of Larraín’s trilogy. The “map of the following 24 years in Chile”, as the filmmaker accurately describes it, charts a territory that is so damaged by the violence it has endured, that in can only — or dares only to — set up an emergency camp over its debris, instead of aspiring to rebuild itself from its foundations.

No captures that precise moment in which Chile, cornered by history, accepted and took this path, while singing a song of joy.