“What you’re about to see is part of the social context of today’s Chile.” In NO, René Saavedra says these words every time he shows his commercials to clients—three times, to be precise. I’ll return to those instances later, but for now, allow me to spend a moment with two words of René’s mantra—social context. These are vague words, sure, but every person understands them in a relatively similar way—as the current cultural, historical, and political events that shape our notion of the present. They are events that constitute a world residing beyond the limits of the screen. What Saavedra tells his clients, and what Larraín tells us, right at the beginning of the film, is that this world is no longer outside; it is not merely the cause of the images we see, but it is also an agent in them.
In Larraín’s cinematic reconstruction of Pinochet’s dictatorship, this is a new direction. Both in Tony Manero (2008)—set in 1978, in the middle of the darkest days of the military regime—and in Post Mortem (2010)—whose story begins a few days before the coup d’état and ends a few days after—shallow depth-of-field and compositions that privilege offscreen space are the main stylistic devices. “Social context” is seen in the form of traces, for instance, in the photo of Pinochet’s wife in the house of a middle class lady right before Raúl beats her to death in Tony Manero. Or it is totally unseen and implied in the audible world that the image withholds from us, as when Mario takes a shower and the framing insists on a medium shot of his face while we hear the violent sounds of the military forces trashing the house across the street on the day of the coup in Post Mortem. In these films, the relevant political events operate always as a backdrop. The exception occurs at the core of Post Mortem, in the scene where Mario participates in Salvador Allende’s autopsy. But this moment, obscene in its cold examination of the body, is there almost as the theatrical setting for the staging of an allegory—the autopsy is performed on the entire nation’s social body, wounded and destroyed. It’s true that Mario participates in that monumental event, but only because circumstances place him there, not because of his own doing. For the most part, these characters are cast outside of historical time.
The opposite holds true for NO. Up to now, Larraín’s imaginary was inextricably tied to the emotionless face and gestures of actor Alfredo Castro, whose performance signaled both a particular style, a nightmarish vision far away from realism, and an ethos, the “I knew nothing, I did nothing” implied in the characters’s refusal to engage in historical events. With NO and Gael García Bernal’s René, we have a different type of character. First, he is a regular guy as opposed to a sociopath. The film emphasizes those aspects of everyday life, René’s struggles with his job and his family. Second, René places himself inside of historical time the moment he decides to be in charge of the No campaign, crafting the commercials that began to be broadcasted on TV one month before the referendum in 1988 and that were to convince viewers of voting against Pinochet remaining in power for eight more years. René was unsure, and he will remain unsure throughout the film, but ultimately his was a conscious choice. If “social context” had been severed from his world as a successful ad man of an important agency, owned by a right-wing conservative (played by Castro), “social context” would be, from the moment he started working for the campaign, more than just “context”; it would be the central aspect of his life.
Nevertheless, contrary to what the American trailer might have you believe—“the true story of a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution”—NO isn’t an epic and René is not even a hero. Yes, he deliberately makes a choice that takes him right into the making of history, skateboarding his way through the streets of Santiago and through the days of the rainbow—the logo that he would create for the Concertación, the center-left coalition that opposed Pinochet. But René—he is an exile and the son of a former political leader—remains an outsider and never seems to fully fit in with the happiness that he himself preached through the sacred laws of advertising. He is too immersed in his individual problems, and too cynical to believe in social change through collective action. Even after the No won the referendum, he seems unconvinced. Ultimately, his only definitive allegiance is to the techniques of marketing, which allow him to sell three different products—a soda, democracy, and a soap opera—with the same pitch about “social context.” In Larraín’s refusal to narrate a story of collective political action and in his emphasis on the backstage of a marketing campaign reside the most polemical and interesting aspects of his film.
Polemical, because he has reduced the Chilean people’s defeat of Pinochet to the all mighty powers of the TV campaign. Sure, the commercials played a big role in the referendum’s final result, but so did strategic political negotiation, as well as the massive and ongoing street demonstrations that took place throughout the country since 1983. The fact that these are nowhere to be seen in NO, that the film deprives the Left of the narrative of heroic political resistance that it continues to tell itself, is infuriating for that political sector. Left critics have thought of the film as an ideological vehicle for neoliberalism.
The ideological nature of this criticism, though accurate to the extent that the obliteration of the people as a social force does say something about the film’s intention, misses the point. NO is the painful reminder of what everyone in the Left already knows, that this was also a victory of the elites, that the referendum is the name we give to the defeat of the dictatorship, but that as an event it signals a pact signed with the military forces and conservatism, a pact that tells us that we can have all the memorials we want, but that the economic model that was enforced via massive killing, torture, and disappearances, was not to be modified, ever. If everyone already knows this, what’s the fuss?
René’s calculated repetition of his magic pitch upsets us, and not just because he uses the same words to sell the soda Free (not a fictional irony here, this was actually a popular soda back then), democracy (because, as one ad man says, democracy is fun, happy, and “what’s happier than happiness?”), and a soap opera for public television (with the return to melodrama and escapism that the genre implies). His repetition upsets us because it signals a double erasure: where we thought there were politics, there was only the cold logic of neoliberalism and the language of advertising and marketing.
Maybe I, like René, am being too cynical here. But how to avoid it, if NO comes out in a moment when the population is almost completely disenchanted with the legacy of the Concertación? The key moment in this respect is the scene when the No team films Patricio Aylwin—then the spokesman of the coalition and later Chile’s first democratic president after the dictatorship. The real Patricio Aylwin, now 94 years old, walks into the room. The crew prepares the cameras and sets the microphone for him. As he begins his speech, the camera moves and shows us a monitor, where we see the actual images from the campaign, that is, Aylwin in 1988. The contrast is so brutal that the cynical spectator can’t help but think, “This is a dead man walking.” If Post Mortem gives us the autopsy of Allende, NO presents us the living cadaver of the Concertación. Too much time has passed and yet nothing has changed—not our Constitution, not our electoral system, not the obscene social inequalities.
However, one of Larraín’s cleverest choices is that his film does not fully adhere to the logic of cynicism. NO inserts a sign of instability into the confidence of all official narratives. The film is a frustration for everyone across the political spectrum, because NO (similar in this to Tony Manero and Post Mortem) is not about the disappearance of radical politics; it is, instead, the emptying of the signifying practices that have turned politics into narratives of memory and into discourses of the spectral. Larraín’s work deprives the Left of its narrative of political resistance, the Concertación of its narrative of political agreements, and the Right … well, they never want to be reminded of the shameful images of their campaign for the Yes vote. But, lucidly, NO also deprives the cynic of his cynicism, because, contained in the images of the campaign, sometimes indistinguishable from the fictional images of the film, we find (how can we miss them?) the light, the joy, the hope of those October days.
Yes, the sphere of politics has been radically displaced, but what of history? What of the images of the real? In the film, everything that we call history is brought back to the fore. NO, obsessed as it is with a fetishistic image of the past, goes beyond nostalgia. Larraín shot his movie on obsolete U-matic cameras, the same equipment that was commonly used by video-makers in the ’80s, and therefore NO has the raw and gritty quality that is tied to Chileans’ audiovisual memory of the dictatorship. But it goes beyond the mere fetish because the film engages in an ongoing examination of the textuality of its images, playing with them, recasting them, shaping them through montage, blurring the limits of archival footage and fictional image. The former becomes the latter, and vice versa. It is the film’s most joyful facet, asking us to enter the play of intertextuality, guessing what the next cameo will be, speculating about the nature of the image that’s being presented to us.
The constant ontological interplay of images is there to tell us that NO’s narrative has been captured by the TV campaign. The irruption of the No spots, taking over the film for long minutes, synthesizes the dialectics of historical representation in cinema. The images of the campaign, endlessly repeated in NO, spark the memories of a cultural event. Those images, not even fictional, but crafted by the language of advertising, are also images of history. Ultimately, history takes over. The eventfulness of history and the temporality of history constantly overcome and exceed the film.
The surplus of history takes us back to the “today” of René’s words about social context. The character is referring to the late ’80s and the end of the dictatorship, but the film reminds us that it is also talking about the present, the today implied in the act of spectatorship. In this sense, NO is much more than a film, and everything that has happened with it—its success in festivals, the negative criticism in Chile, and its nomination to the Academy Awards—testifies to that. NO speaks about today, about our incomplete democracy, about our political disenchantment and frustration, as well as about the possibilities of subversion of any historical narrative. In this, Larraín’s film is also a museum piece, an intervention, a political action, and a disruption in the naturalized order of events. Let’s thank him for that.