The Invented Country
Guilt feelings have led our screens to fascination with the not-distant past in Vietnam and, in works often made by Chileans and more non-fiction or fact-based than otherwise, the CIA-aided coup d’état of September 11, 1973, and its aftermath. No is Pablo Larraín’s fourth feature and, with trilogy mates Tony Manero and Santiago ’73, Post Mortem, paints a picture of the origins, violent heyday and end of the infamous military regime.
The generals modernized the stringbean 2,700 by 160 mi. country at the cost of bloodshed and, argue its detractors, the national soul. In a New York Film Festival press session, Larraín and his actress-wife Antonia Zegers admitted that, too young then to take in the full significance of the events in 1988, they did remember the fear that reigned and the celebration of relief that followed.
In subtitled Spanish, the hundred-ten minutes nevertheless uses some humor in the midst of and at the service of seriousness. Even shooting itself had light moments, as when onlookers sought to “rescue” Zegers’ Verónica from an actor-riot policeman’s headlock. The whole is an inseparable mix of archival, often TV footage and current acted material captured with 1980s Ikegami tube cameras in television default format U-matic.
The Pedro Peirano script is adapted from stage play The Referendum by Antonio Skármeta, one of whose novels became The Postman. The story in effect divides the political conflict between two outwardly polite antagonists, middle-aged and young, employer and employee. Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro) heads the publicity agency where bearded borderline scraggly René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal, absent from the Q&A on account of illness) is ace adman. The clean-shaved sartorially impeccable boss projects personal and professional loneliness, tight control of himself and his underlings, and a desire to climb the social ladder by ingratiating himself with the military and ministers of the dictatorship in a ruthless free-market capitalism.
René is the son of a left-wing politician and exile, and his non-compliance is first visualized by his skateboarding or getting around Santiago on a motorcycle in preference to his car. His house is more than comfortable -- Guzmán’s is never seen -- cared for by conservative but faithful maid Carmen and shared with a son, Simon (Pascal Montero, in a wasted rôle), whose mother Verónica lives elsewhere with another man, resists René’s coaxing to spend the night with him, and is cynical about his politics (or lack thereof).
International pressure has forced the government to call a nationwide referendum on another eight years of Pinochet or, if not, democratic elections within a year. (Outside the film, that election would be won by Concertación para la Democracia Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin, who does appear.) Coincidental or planned, the film plebiscite coincides with the second anniversary of Chile’s finest global moment in the rescue of the trapped miners, and with our own prolonged campaigns. René is enlisted into the fray by José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), his father’s and his old friend, not the communist enemies brand him, and one of the moving forces behind securing a No-confidence vote on the present rulers.
Guzmán’s bribery offer of a partnership in the firm and physical intimidation by shadowy opponents push René deeper into the No movement. Particularly on television, the ads run by both sides are amateurish by today’s standards but, not necessarily intended, also a mirror of the U.S. (and likely everywhere) hoopla atmosphere.
The No-to-Pinochet platform expects to lose, especially through fraud, but still wants to discourage abstentions -- voting has since been made mandatory -- and marshal visible popular support. There are the inevitable disagreements about effective methods, as between René and also young, non-sartorial Fernando (Néstor Cantillana). Worried pro-government publicity responds to No happiness ads with a milder more loveable Pinochet out of uniform.
October 5 draws near, things intensify on both sides.
The character of René, however, proves too slender a reed to bear the weight of his part. With his retiring smile and preference for Simon’s toy trains, his métier is not either the business or the public arena. About advertising and selling as much as politics or pain, No would have been better as straight documentary, for neither he nor Guzmán has the needed dramatic strength to draw us into the real history-in-the-making.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics)