Pablo Larrain’s No (Chile, 2012) was one of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film, and has gotten a pretty warm critical reception overall. It relates the story of Chile’s national plebiscite in 1980, the referendum on whether to allow General August Pinochet another eight-year term as President of Chile. (Pinochet had taken power in a military coup that overthrew the democratically-elected Salvador Allende in 1973; it’s a badly-kept secret that Henry Kissinger and the CIA were deeply involved in supplanting Allende.) Chile ratified its Constitution in 1980, which, among other things, established the eight-year term, and the government allowed (somewhat) open campaigning for both sides of the referendum – the ‘Yes’ campaign to keep Pinochet, and the ‘No’ campaign to end Pinochet’s presidency and declare new presidential and parliamentary elections nine months thereafter.
The film tells its story from the point-of-view of René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), an advertising and marketing man who becomes one of the primary crafters of the ‘No’ campaign. Steeped in the high-flash, short-attention-span world of corporate marketing and television advertising, Saavedra advocates for the young, happy, positive spin that has succeeded in his soft-drink campaigns. But he must negotiate with others in the campaign who want to keep things politically fervent and serious-minded. And, as they enjoy some small successes in the early stages, they come under government pressure from underneath – just how fair will this referendum be, anyway? Things are further complicated when the Pinochet camp changes managers mid-stream, and René’s more conservative marketing-firm partner, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), takes the reins of the ‘Yes’ campaign.
For folks who are familiar with the political and historical facts of the story, I’m sure this account will be pretty interesting. But I found Larrain’s short, choppy, narrative episodes to be somewhat hard to follow and oddly undynamic. We get some general glimpses of Pinochet’s reign – including the kidnapping and torture of political prisoners, and the widespread graft – but until mysterious sedans start following the ‘No’ campaigners home, and we get overt good-guy-bad-guy indicators within the narrative itself, it’s hard to get a grasp on the larger stakes involved for either side – we’re too swallowed up inside the internal sausage-making and disparate characters of the campaigns themselves. Larrain has also chosen to shoot the entire film in the same 3/4” videotape format that was used extensively by the television of the time – it’s good for matching up footage of the actual advertising, and for existing historical newscasts of the period, but other than as a gimmicky shortcut-to-authenticity, I just didn’t think doing everything else that way added anything to the film. The film has its champions, and I invite you to consult other opinions, but I honestly didn’t see what the big deal was here.
Christian Petzold’s wonderful film Barbara (Germany, 2012), however, goes about its business in admirably linear, straightforward, one-thing-after-the-other narrative fashion. The art here is in Petzold’s flawlessly scrupulous visual narrative, and the story structure that gives his capable actors room to shine. This is a film I don’t want to say too much about – I’ll just refer to my earlier recommendation of Barbara as one of my favorite films of 2012:
“Filmmaker Christian Petzold has been making wonderful films these last five years or so (Yella, Jerichow, one of the Dreileben trilogy), and his frequent collaborator, actress Nina Hoss, is working with him on an astonishing level of filmed storytelling craft. Barbara Wolff is a talented doctor who made the mistake of applying for an exit visa out of East Germany in the early 1980s, and has been banished to a small provincial hospital in the middle of nowhere by the Stasi for her trouble. Petzold crams an astounding amount of political, personal and emotional information into his otherwise calmly measured story, and Hoss is an actress you need to see every chance you get. Utterly fascinating professional filmmaking of high intelligence and heartbreaking honesty.”