Pablo Larraín’s No: Pieces of History

Published at Unsung Films on Feb. 19/2013.


Chileans needn’t witness director Pablo Larraín standing on the stage of the Kodak Theater with an Oscar in his hands to know that No, the first movie in the country’s history to be nominated as Best Foreign Language Film, has already achieved something momentous. Taking an Oscar home is possible, but the chance is devastatingly slim. Michael Haneke’s Amour is competing in the same category. But none of this really matters. No already won. There is a principal reason for understanding this nomination as a triumph. Winning an Oscar is not, nor has ever been an ambition held by Chilean filmmakers. Being nominated is comparable to sending a man to the moon in a country without rockets. It is surreal; it has always been something that has only ever happened to “the others” — Chilean directors and producers are too busy struggling to showcase productions in local movie theatres to have dreams about the Oscars.

In a country where filmmakers are known to have sold their cars to finance the story they want to tell, where young enthusiasts record amateur actors and friends with their smart-phones, this nomination must be taken as a sign of a film with extraordinary qualities. It is not normal, it is not usual, and we don’t know when it will happen again. Perhaps 1996 was the closest a Chilean story has ever been to the Oscars, when the Italian movie Il Postino, directed by Michael Radford got five nominations, including Best Picture, but won only one award for its original score.  Based on the novel Ardiente Paciencia by Antonio Skarmeta (also writer of the play on which No is based), the background is Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The same context in which No is framed. In a country as young as Chile, spanning across just 203 years, the dictatorship has shaped a great deal of its history — also rubbing off on almost all aspects of Chile’s culture, including the stories told in Chilean cinema.

No is not a movie about victims and torturers. No is about normal (and for this very reason complex) human beings. The selection of a very particular angle allows for the development of universal themes that can be extrapolated from the situation in Chile to make some kind of powerful connection with foreign audiences. In this sense, No follows a strategy identifiable in other successful movies based around historical events. For example La vita è bella, to some extent, might be branded a movie about the Second World War. But really, the war is only the film’s structure, beckoning its audience inside, allowing the characters to explore a narrative that can be understood by any audience in the world: the relation, in this instance, between a son and a father. That universal feeling that can fit quite nicely into a western, a romantic comedy or even a science fiction movie, is what builds on how the viewer relates to the particular story being told.

In the case of No, viewers are not asked, or required to have an understanding of the political situation in Chile. In 1988, after 15 years of dictatorship, Augusto Pinochet finally agrees that a plebiscite be conducted in the country — asking people if they want democratic elections. From this point, the film displays the sense of loss felt by the dictatorship’s opposition. For Pinochet’s opponents, this was merely a bureaucratic step taken to legitimize the regime. But a powerful advertisement campaign telling people to vote “No against Pinochet’s continuity is a key element in the future of the country.

In reality it was much more complex, but for the purpose of the movie, that frame is enough to get inside the life of the publicists that worked for the campaign, which quickly becomes the soul of the story. Any creator can identify with Gael García’s character, primarily because the movie’s dialogue stands next to that of Adaptation or Barton Fink, producing a representation of the creative process and what it means to live with it as an essential part of one’s existence. Secondly, because the character represents and embodies the enthusiasm and idealism that is found, without fail, inside those who create for a living. That is the great premise of No, the belief that a narrative and good ideas can actually reshape the future of a country.

Just like Nicolas Cage‘s character in Adaptation is literally a mirror of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Gael García is also a projection of the filmmakers. Pablo Larraín is a successful advertisement director and screenwriter Pedro Peirano is a multi talented journalist, filmmaker, TV director, cartoonist and responsible fot the script of The Maid, the only Chilean movie in history to get nominated for a Golden Globe in 2010. From this point of view, No is a personal story, an authorial film, where the experience of these two minds is encapsulated in a sort of time-machine to expose the urgency of creativity under the restraints of crisis.

Larraín’s three previous movies, Fuga, Tony Manero and Post Mortem were acclaimed in international festivals and are impressive in audiovisual terms, but they are distant and cold, exploring borderline characters where personality is a filter between the real world and their perception of it. With No, Larrain chose to transform the kind of films he was directing, to develop a story for a massive audience, and paradoxically, he ended up filming the most personal of his movies. Being nominated for an award formally won by names such as Vittorio De Sica (the first director who received it), Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, and competing at the same level as Michael Haneke, is not a small achievement for a movie detailing the power of creativity. Whatever happens the night of the 24th of February isn’t important, because the filmmakers of No achieved something as great as their characters in the movie; with this nomination, they have already changed the history of Chile.