Tag Archives: A-

NO

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Shot in a quasi-documentary style (and an old aspect ratio) that go oddly well with an uplifting story about a country’s peaceful liberation from dictatorship, Pablo Larrain’s “No” is a fact-based account of a 1988 referendum that unexpectedly led to the end of General Augustin Pinochet’s rule in Chile. But while the impact of the vote, which the General agreed to only under international pressure, is the film’s overarching theme, Larrain—working from a script by Pedro Peirano after a play by Antonio Skarmeta, concentrates on the advertising campaign that turned the electoral tide against the ruling junta. Smoothly juxtaposing starkly serious sequences against moments of dark and not-so-dark humor, Larrain fashions an unlikely crowd-pleaser from a historical episode that has its share of tragedy as well as triumph.

Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Rene Saavedra, a hotshot young adman at a cutting-edge firm specializing in glitzy, unconventional TV spots for products like a soft drink called Free. Estranged from his far more activist wife( Antonia Zegers) but still closely involved in the life of their young son (Pascal Montero), he’s initially reserved when approached by a leftist politician (Luis Gnecco) to join the group planning the campaign to urge citizens to vote against Pinochet’s continuance as president. But eventually he joins up, despite the danger that poses to himself and his family and the fact that his boss Lucho (Alfredo Castro) has been hired by the government for their “Yes” campaign. So there’s an amusing personal competition added to the far more serious mix.

The linchpin of the plot is the direction the “No” advertising took under Saavedra’s influence. Instead of going a heavy, ponderous route, reciting woeful facts and figures about an admittedly dark time, the TV spots opted for a bright, optimistic tone that emphasized the feeling of liberation and freedom the dismantling of the oppressive Pinochet regime would bring. And though the commercials—made surreptitiously with the participation of show biz folk who yearned for change—were relegated by the government to late-night hours when it was presumed they’d go unnoticed, their neon-colored visuals and witty commentary on the years of oppression became a sensation, forcing Lucho to try to respond in kind. And when the vote is finally taken, the regime’s initial inclination to manipulate the result in Pinochet’s favor has to be scuttled when his fellow junta members refuse to go along; and though the General retained his position in the military, his forced laying down of the presidential office became for Chileans a sort of second independence day.

Larrain tells this story in a fashion that combines the seriousness of a Costa-Gavras with the feel-good mentality of a Frank Capra. One wouldn’t expect the mixture to be a plausible one, but he pulls it off, not least because Bernal cuts, as always, a charismatic yet approachable figure as Rene, and the more reserved Castro makes such a perfect foil for him. And the film is cleverly constructed from a technical standpoint as well, perfectly blending archival footage from the eighties with the newly-shot material by employing actual 1983 U-matic video cameras and film stock from that time, as well as the boxy aspect ratio that’s now considered antiquated. The result, which must have given cinematographer Sergio Armstrong plenty of headaches, proves to have been worth the effort, giving everything a decidedly documentary look. But the effect wouldn’t have been possible without the extraordinary attention to period detail that’s obvious in the work of the behind-the-scenes crew—especially production designer Estefania Larrain and costumer Francisca Roman. And though this won’t mean as much to non-Chileans, the presence of many participants in the actual events—including Saavedra—in small roles adds to the sense of authenticity.

The subject of “No” might initially seem parochial, and to a non-Chilean audience relatively inaccessible. But in reality the struggle against tyranny, wherever it exists, has universal resonance. (After all, Pinochet eventually became a target of international efforts to prosecute him, though they never succeeded.) Most treatments of such matters, however, are understandably sober, even grim. By contrast Larrain has been able to deal with this episode in what might be called a lighthearted fashion without sacrificing the genuinely tragic undertones of a dark period in his country’s history. You leave his film instructed, but also entertained—an excellent combination.

56 UP

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An autumnal glow suffuses “56 Up,” the latest installment of the Granada Television documentary series that began in 1964 by introducing fourteen British seven-year olds from different backgrounds and has revisited them every seven years since. (Actually, one of the subjects quickly dropped out, and another followed suit after “28 Up” but returns for this installment.) Michael Apted has been with the project since the start, first as a staff member and then as director, and it’s his voice that one hears asking the gently probing offscreen questions of the now fifty-six-year old subjects.

As always, for those who have been watching these films for years (or, in some cases decades), it’s fascinating to catch up with these men and women—rather like going to a reunion and listening to old acquaintances bring us up to date on what’s been happening to them. Just seeing them again—most of them paunchier and with far less hair—brings smiles of recognition, particularly because Apted and editor Kim Horton are careful to shuffle in plenty of footage from previous installments. Some, of course, are more striking than others. Two are the subjects whose lives have taken particularly sad turns. One is Jackie Bassett, whose financial situation has grown precarious because arthritis has made it virtually impossible to find a job and government cutbacks are threatening her ability to survive even as family problems mount. The other is, of course, Neil Hughes, whose childhood ebullience dissipated as he became a university dropout, wandering the roads homeless and jobless in earlier episodes. As in “49 Up,” he’s recouped somewhat—finding a place as a local council member in the rustic north and as a lay minister as well. But he remains a poignant, somewhat pathetic figure living on the emotional (and practical) edge.

Most of the others have achieved much greater security, though for some—like the three upper-class subjects, all of whom exhibit a special degree of caution in expressing themselves—doing so wasn’t much of a struggle. And most seem reasonably content, many particularly because of their long, strong marriages and the success of their children (who get far more screen time this time around, with only one identified as having run into major personal difficulties). It’s especially interesting to encounter Peter Davies again—who dropped out of the series twenty-eight years ago because, as a young teacher, he made some mild anti-Thatcher observations that led to verbal attacks against him and now returns, largely because—as he unabashedly admits—he wants to promote his country-Western band. And of course voluble Cockney Tony Walker, the wannabe jockey who instead became a cabbie, always makes a strong impression, revisiting his childhood neighborhood and making a few remarks about its present population that lead Apted to raise the issue of racism—a charge Walker utterly rejects. Like others of the lower-class subjects, he also reflects the impact of the recent world economic downturn on the lifestyle of ordinary people. All the others have their moments too, though mostly at lower volume.

The “Up” series is quite simply one of the great documentary projects in the history of cinema, an engrossing sociological experiment on film; and though this mostly mellow installment isn’t as revelatory as some earlier ones, it’s still a remarkable document. For those who have been following the series, this eighth installment will be a no-brainer. But Apted has made it accessible to newcomers as well, by presenting it in what amount to individual segments on the thirteen subjects, seamlessly melding footage from previous “episodes” with newly-shot material to provide virtual mini-biographies.

And if you are coming to the “Up” films for the first time, you’ll probably be drawn to check out the seven preceding installments. Happily, you’ll find them on DVD. A marathon would not be out of order.