The blunt title of “No,” directed by Pablo Larraín and one of the five nominees for best foreign-language film in this year’s Academy Awards, refers to an inspiring moment in the history of Chile, his native land. In a straight up-or-down, yes-or-no plebiscite there in 1988, the citizenry ended the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet by voting him out of power, 15 years after he had seized control in a bloody American-backed coup.
Mr. Larraín’s attention to historical detail—the kind of sweaters worn by people on the left, the slang, the fearful atmosphere, his innovative use of archival footage — is a reason he won the top prize at the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival in May. But at home the film’s reception has been more mixed, with leaders of the real-life NO campaign protesting that the film gets several big facts wrong and fundamentally distorts others.
The central character and hero of “No,” which opens in limited release on Friday, is the fictional René Saavedra, a hip young advertising executive recently returned from exile in Mexico, played by Gael García Bernal. Hired to produce the ad campaign for the underdog NO side, Saavedra faces resistance from stodgily doctrinaire politicians on the left, but he creates a hopeful rainbow logo and a slogan, “Chile, happiness is on its way,” that turn the tide.
But no sooner had “No” opened in Chilean cinemas last year than Mr. Larraín found himself under fire on Twitter. “To believe that Pinochet lost the plebiscite because of a TV logo and jingle is not to grasp anything of what occurred,” wrote Francisco Vidal, a cabinet minister in two recent Socialist governments. Mr. Larraín responded that “the movie is just a fragment” that never aimed to “simplify the whole No process to a logo,” but organizers of the No effort have found that explanation unconvincing.
“The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality,” Genaro Arriagada, director of the NO campaign, said in a telephone interview from Chile. “The idea that, after 15 years of dictatorship in a politically sophisticated country with strong union and student movements, solid political parties and an active human rights movement, all of a sudden this Mexican advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentlemen, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.”
The Chilean debate over “No” echoes some of the issues that have surfaced this Oscar season in the controversy over Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and especially “Zero Dark Thirty.” To what extent can a filmmaker selectively condense and simplify complicated true events and still claim to have made a work faithful to what really happened?
“I just make movies,” Mr. Larraín said, adding: “I’m not the official version of anything. I’m just an artist who does what he wants, what feels best. And if people think that Lincoln is Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s not going to be my problem or Steven Spielberg’s problem.”
In the case of “No” the issue is further blurred by Mr. Larraín’s use of documentary footage, shot in 1988, which he estimated amounts to about 30 percent of the film. The rest of “No,” the fictional component, was shot in the same style to give the film a uniform, coherent look, thus merging reality and fiction.
“I still get a lot of comments from people who, after watching the movie, they say: ‘Oh you did a great job with Pinochet. That actor really looks like him,’ ” Mr. Larraín said in an interview in New York last fall. “And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, wait.’ ”
In the interview Mr. Larraín described “No” as a pastiche with “a strange balance between documentary and fiction,” adding that “the way things happen in the movie is not exactly the way they were, but the facts are the same.”
Asked last month for his formulation Mr. García Bernal used somewhat different language. “The film is definitely faithful to the nature of the true events, true to their sentiment,” he said. “I think that’s what you can say. Of course there are also many more details that you can’t be sure about.”
Describing the film as a fable, he added that “it manages to grab hold of two or three elements that show the nature of what was at stake at that time.”
“No” is loosely based on “The Plebiscite,” a play written by Antonio Skármeta, a Chilean who is also the author of the novel that was made into the Oscar-winning film “Il Postino.” He invented the René Saavedra character, but his Saavedra is very different from Mr. Larrain’s: 50ish, politically engaged, idealistic and happily married rather than 30ish, indifferent to politics, careerist and separated.
That said, Mr. Skármeta, who has followed the controversy in Chile, emphasized that he likes “No,” praising it for its “fascinating perspective” and the performances. But even if he didn’t, he said, he would defend Mr. Larraín’s right to make the movie as he saw fit.
“A work of art does not have to be reduced to history or represent history,” he said. “The movie does truly lack what took place under the iceberg, which did appear in my play and novel. So the criticisms of the political leadership are correct in that sense. But this is a work of art that uses reality to do something else that is provocative and interesting, that reflects the views of a different, younger generation.”
New York Times by Larry Rohter, Feb. 8, 2013