Evanston RoundTable, March 28, 2013
There are some vexing incongruities and problems that hamper “No,” the Chilean film starring Gael Garcia Bernal as Rene, a young ad executive recruited to furnish the anti-government forces with TV commercials during Chile’s historic 1988 presidential campaign.
Too bad, because the movie has a fascinating story to tell. In 1973, Chilean general Augusto Pinochet led a coup against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. A subsequent constitution imposed by the military called for a national referendum to elect a president. Pinochet put himself forward as the candidate and despite his regime’s notorious record of murder, kidnapping and torture, it was widely assumed he would win. After all, in a dictatorship, he who controls the guns and airwaves controls the votes.
However Pinochet’s government hadn’t reckoned on the quirky ad campaign the No forces developed, with colorful rainbow logos and catchy jingles set to the slogan, “Happiness is coming.”
Mr. Bernal as the campaign’s creative genius – he is credited in the film with the insight that a “happy” campaign would draw far more interest and votes than showing scenes of torture and shootings – was an inspired choice in the role. A veteran of some fine movies, including “Bad Education” and “The Motorcycle Diaries,” where he played a winsomely appealing Che Guevara, Mr. Bernal may be the most interesting and talented Spanish-speaking actor in movies today.
A movie about a stirring, non-violent regime change accomplished with upbeat TV commercials would seem especially timely in the age of Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and Syria. As a speaker addressing a celebratory crowd at the movie’s end intones with due regard for posterity, “Without shedding a drop of blood, a nation has overthrown a vicious dictatorship, simply by saying no!”
But despite this potential for high drama and the opportunity to chronicle an important turning point in modern South American history, “No” comes off as tedious and even amateurish. The film looks like it was pirated from someone’s TV set, with drab and muddy colors and registration that is occasionally out of synch. The editing was herky-jerky and distracting. The director has said this was meant to conform the look of the film with the extensive documentary footage used. But it just looked bad.
The tone of the movie is another issue. Is it a comedy? Thriller? Documentary? Dramedy? It was some of each. Sometimes hybrids work, like the Prius, and sometimes, like the DeLorean, they just seem weird.
The acting and writing were serviceable – although a sub-plot involving Rene’s ex-wife and son seem tacked onto the story like an artificial limb – but there were long stretches where the movie’s pacing seemed as lethargic as a Wagner opera.
As with “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” there were also issues over the film’s depiction of actual events, with the real-life leader of the No campaign criticizing the movie for “gross oversimplification.”
On the plus side, the movie explores some interesting if not exactly revelatory territory about how modern marketing manipulates consumers – whether they’re buying sugar-laden cereals or honey-coated government lies. But this doesn’t compensate for the movie’s leaden feel and dull look and pacing.
Far better is director Ang Lee’s wonderful “Life of Pi,” which is still playing in local theaters. The movie, which won four Oscars including best director, hews closely to the award-winning 2001 book of the same name written by Yann Martel. The title character Pi (short for Piscine) is a young and religion-besotted boy whose parents own a zoo in India. When the zoo is forced to close, they decide to relocate it to Canada. During a storm in the middle of the ocean their ship rolls over and Pi is left on a lifeboat with a menagerie of animals, chief among them being the fearsome and unforgettable Bengal tiger known as “Richard Parker.”
How Pi survives with his nemesis Parker is only half the beauty of this gripping tale. The cinematography and visual effects are not to be believed – absolutely convincing and stunningly beautiful. The movie’s ending, like the book’s, throws the whole story into doubt, posits an alternate version and requires the viewer to decide on the nature of reality and story-telling.
“Life of Pi” is movie-making at its best.