This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: In 1988, under pressure from Western democracies, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet called for a national plebiscite on his presidency.
A no vote, Pinochet promised, would end his 15-year reign, which had been marked by the murder, torture and arbitrary imprisonment of tens of thousands of his fellow citizens. If a majority voted yes, the general would remain president for another eight years.
Apparently, Pinochet was confident that the majority of his subjects adored him, as appears to be common with dictators. He thought he would easily win the popular vote. The dictatorship ordinarily exercised tight control over the media, but for the last month of the campaign Pinochet's opponents were given 15 minutes on nightly television to make their case for his ouster.
The Chilean film "No," an Oscar nominee, is a devilishly clever satire that tells the story of the ultimately successful anti-Pinochet "No" campaign from the standpoint of a hip, skateboarding young advertising man named Rene Saavadra (Gael Garcia Bernal). Rene was in charge of those nightly 15-minute spots, and he approached his job as if he were selling soft-drinks, not politics.
The politicians in charge of the campaign wanted stark, hard-hitting condemnation of the Pinochet reign of terror, filled with footage of protestors being clubbed and dragged off to torture chambers. Instead, Rene gave them children playing with balloons on a grassy hill and ballet dancers reaching for the sky. He gave them a rainbow logo and the slogan "Chile, happiness is on the way." In Rene's ads, opera singers belt out the word "No" as if it were the key to life itself, a way to say "Yes" to the gift of freedom.
The film is funny and smart and emotionally gratifying. About 30 percent of it consists of old video footage of the real campaign, woven almost seamlessly into the remainder to the film, which director Pablo Larrain shot on vintage video cameras. The film as a whole, with its old-fashioned narrow screen and washed-out color, looks as if it had been sitting in storage somewhere for the past three decades. There is particularly striking use of actual footage of Pinochet, footage that makes the dictator seem like he's just part of the cast, and a bumbler to boot.
Perhaps because this artificial verisimilitude makes the movie at times resemble a documentary, some Chileans have objected that "No" tells only a small part of the story. I'm sure they're right. Politicians in particular have complained that "No" fails to deal adequately with the real reason Pinochet was defeated -- a successful "ground game" by the coalition of left-liberal parties, students and unions opposed to Pinochet. They embarked on an intensive campaign to register voters and get them to the polls.
Director Pablo Lorrain has responded that "No" is not intended as the "official version" of the campaign, and has called it, according to the New York Times, "a strange balance between documentary and fiction." Whatever else it may be, "No" is a first-rate satire. The focus on the almost ludicrously cheerful television spots is funny, and tells us a great deal, for good and for ill, about human nature and the political process. In any event, the good guys won, in real life and in the movie.
Opens Friday March 29
A skillfully constructed, convincingly detailed German police procedural, "The Silence" opens with the murder of a young girl on a bicycle in a wheat field and then moves forward in time 23 years. In the same town on the same day, a second girl goes missing and her bicycle is found in the same wheat field.
We know who killed the first girl, and suspect the same man is responsible for the abduction and presumed death of the second, but the police don't know nearly as much as we do. And as the investigation proceeds, we learn some of the things we know may not be true.
Much of the emotional strength of the film comes from complex connections among the characters, all of whom either have lost something dear to them, or have the potential for great loss. A detective on the new case is recently widowed; the old detective on the original case has been forced to retire, and his valuable insights are rejected by his former colleagues; one of the men involved in the original murder now has daughters of his own; a woman detective is pregnant. The mother of the first girl has never gotten over her daughter's brutal death, and the parents of the second are alternately paralyzed and galvanized into anger by their sense of guilt and loss.
Young Swiss-born director Baran Bo Odar and his German cinematographer Nik Summerer do a superb job of telling the story with striking images, some of them recurring and strongly symbolic. The climax is both powerful and puzzling, like the story itself.