The Chilean director Pablo Larrain has made three fascinating films in five years, all dealing with Chile during the Pinochet years, and so constituting a trilogy of sorts. His 2008 Tony Manero, set around 1978, is a portrait of Raul, a violent criminal obsessed with John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever, and with embodying him sufficiently well to win the top prize on a TV show – his murderous path to success includes killing a movie theatre projectionist after Saturday Night Fever is replaced by Grease, which hardly seems like placing the blame where it belongs. The character barely exhibits a shred of emotion, doubt or remorse; it seems his focus on Travolta’s highly defined dance routines may represent some twisted desire for a form of structure and clarity in an environment devoid of any of it. There’s nothing so new about the notion of a violent hood with darkly quirky aspirations, but Larrain never makes it feel like a pose, and his film is quietly eloquent about the wretched environment – if Raul didn’t have this to hold him together, he’d just be another of the exploited or the preyed upon.
Two years later, Larrain extended this notion in Post Mortem, set in 1973, at what we gradually understand to be the exact moment of the military coup against the government. A grim functionary, who makes a living transcribing autopsy reports, obsesses over a burlesque dancer as his only apparent hope of getting anything going in his personal life, then things erupt and he’s surrounded by corpses, which however constitutes a perverse form of privilege; the film’s last scene illustrates how war and mass atrocity enables embittered men to lash out more intimately, enabling the spreading of amorality and corruption. Post Mortem is darker than the first film, and less conceptually striking, but it confirmed Larrain as a filmmaker of great resourcefulness, capable of evoking a rich engagement with a very specific history without becoming remotely didactic (indeed, viewers with more straightforward tastes might find the films too oblique).
Neither of those two works received much widespread attention – I could be wrong, but I don’t think they ever opened commercially here. On the other hand, the third film No is one of the more prominent of recent months, and even received an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. It wouldn’t necessarily follow that it’s the least interesting of the three, but overall I think that’s the case. It’s extremely engrossing and skillful, and goes down very easily, but by the same token, the thoughts it provokes are more familiar, and it slides from your mind more quickly afterwards. In interviews, Larrain seems ready to move on to other subject matter, so maybe there’s an element of conscious artistic cleansing about it, of preparing to emerge from the darkness into the relative light.
Don’t Google the outcome
The film is set in 1988, when international pressure forced Pinochet into holding a plebiscite on his continuing rule; a victory would certainly be proclaimed as a guarantee of legitimacy, but it was unclear whether the dictator would abide with a No vote, or whether the whole process would be sufficiently rigged that this could never happen. During the run-up, each side gets a nightly fifteen minute TV window to make its case, and Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a cutting-edge advertising man (apparently an amalgam of two real-life figures) pulled into helping to shape the No campaign; his boss meanwhile works on the Pinochet team, even as the two continue to collaborate on commercial assignments.
Larrain cannily shot the film using old video cameras from the era, so that the archival footage (including the actual campaign commercials) meshes seamlessly with the recreations. The image quality looks grotty, but that alleviates a potential sense of over-slickness, and implies a deep-rooted authenticity. The film doesn’t lack dramatic shape, but it’s primarily about process and momentum, although with a recurring sense of danger, driven by that doubt about Pinochet’s commitment to fairness, and occasional moments when that crystallizes into visible threat.
In his Star review, Peter Howell counsels: “Do yourself a favour and don’t Google the plebiscite’s real-life outcome before you see the movie.” Which somewhat sums up an ambiguity at the heart of No – does one best engage with history by artificially limiting one’s knowledge of it? In the film, the question swirls around the ethics of building a campaign around images of future happiness, rather than in denouncing Pinochet for his crimes against humanity. Gloominess, the premise goes, doesn’t sell political change any more than it sells soda. But there’s a counter-question: aren’t qualities as fundamental as freedom and justice fatally compromised, if gained through anything less than the truth? Put another way, to what extent does the end justify the means – and, even, since the same question gets asked about rebels and freedom fighters (or, if you’re on the other side, terrorists), to what extent is such media manipulation a form of strategic violence?
Chilean Mad Men
The question obviously has broad application – I’d certainly argue for instance that Rob Ford’s disregard for his responsibilities, and for any sane concept of appropriate leadership, constitutes a form of violent assault on the city, all the more offensive because it seems based more in pathology than in strategy. But ultimately, I don’t think this train of thought is central to No’s effect. Howell mentions Mad Men twice in his review, and concludes with the line: “Don Draper never had to pitch a campaign this tough, or this important.” Likewise, the British magazine Sight and Sound used the film as a jumping off point for an essay titled Mad Men in the Movies, concluding that “advertising in the movies is not so much a job as a mindset to be escaped, so that a new, more evolved human being can emerge.” Fair enough, but it seems to me a job that’s already unduly prominent in cinema compared to, you know, most normal jobs people have. And anyway, on the scale of things that should matter about the long and complex history of the Pinochet regime, I’m not sure how highly this aspect of it ranks.
Even if it might be useful to watch this particular film without knowing anything of the history, that can’t possibly be a meaningful approach to engaging with these matters more broadly. Which goes back to why I find No less gripping and less intellectually galvanizing than Larrain’s preceding films. In saying that, it might sound like I’m falling prey to a grim stereotyping whereby every film about wretched times in history is only worthwhile if it focuses morbidly and piously on that wretchedness. But my best rebuttal to that would merely be to refer back to the highly distinctive excellence of Larrain’s two previous films.