Chile’s best seller

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS - TARA BRADY

NO ★★★★

Di­rected by Pablo Lar­rain. Star­ring Gael Gar­cia Ber­nal, Al­fredo Cas­tro, Luis Gnecco, An­to­nia Zegers

15A cert, IFI/Light House, Dublin, 117 min Pablo Lar­rain’s ob­ses­sion with the poi­sonous regime of Au­gusto Pinochet has ul­ti­mately de­liv­ered one of the most pe­cu­liar, di­vert­ing trilo­gies in world cin­ema. Fol­low­ing the re­volt­ing, trou­bling Tony Manero and the more or­dered Post Mortem, the Chilean di­rec­tor sur­passes him­self with a witty, clev­erly am­bigu­ous treat­ment of the 1988 ref­er­en­dum on the dic­ta­tor’s right to re­main in power.

Gael Gar­cia Ber­nal plays Rene Saavedra, a young ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive hired to work on the No cam­paign. The re­sult­ing com­mer­cial will be broad­cast once a day in a more ob­scure cor­ner of the sched­ule. The op­er­a­tion looks like an ex­er­cise in lip ser­vice: an at­tempt to pre­tend that democ­racy thrives in this wholly dys­func­tional so­ci­ety. Many ci­ti­zens are cer­tain that the plebiscite will be rigged in the tyrant’s favour. While Rene de­vises his schemes, his boss (Al­fredo Cas­tro) works for the other side.

It’s a canny set-up. At a su­per­fi­cial glance, Rene sounds like a hero: a man strug­gling to re­store san­ity to a de­ranged polity. But there seems ev­ery pos­si­bil­ity the regime is ex­ploit­ing him to help bol­ster its façade. More­over, the oc­ca­sional vacu­ity of Rene’s sales tech­niques – the same ones he uses to present soft drinks – points to­wards a po­ten­tial empti­ness be­yond any bright new dawn.

Lar­rain and Ber­nal make some­thing de­light­fully slip­pery of the pro­tag­o­nist. We are never en­tirely sure if Rene (the son of a prom­i­nent dis­si­dent) is one of the good guys or an en­tirely cyn­i­cal op­er­a­tor. It is some­thing of a sur­prise to en­counter the star in a film by this most un­com­pro­mis­ing of direc­tors. But Ber­nal’s glam­our and charm are per­fectly tuned for a late-cen­tury snake-oil sales­man.

No is shot on old-school video that per­mits the dra­matic se­quences to blend seam­lessly with the com­mer­cials. The re­sult is oc­ca­sion­ally claus­tro­pho­bic and dis­tanc­ing, but the pic­ture still comes across as the most fully formed of Lar­rain’s Pinochet films. In­deed, it makes the su­per­fi­cial Mad Men seem like, well, a com­mer­cial. Buy, buy, buy.

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