Reviews — From the May 2013 issue

Open Happiness

No and the magic system of advertising

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No, directed by Pablo Larraín. Fabula/Participant Media/Canana. 118 minutes.

Do movies have the power to change history? Or, more specifically, can TV ads alter the course of an election? The affirmative answer is provided by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s fact-based fourth feature, wittily titled No.

The thirty-six-year-old Larraín has devoted his career to excavating Chile’s recent past, especially the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende and the brutal military regime established by General Augusto Pinochet. Documentary, however, is not Larraín’s mode. His two previous movies, Tony Manero (2008) and Post Mortem (2010) — the former concerned with life under the Pinochet dictatorship, the latter with its origins — are, though shot in a naturalistic style, dark, absurdist allegories. Populated by characters who suggest hungry ghosts and animated corpses, they exemplify what might be termed the political gothic.

To the degree that Chilean cinema has an international reputation, it is best known for its exiles — Miguel Littín, Patricio Guzmán, the late Raúl Ruiz and his wife, Valeria Sarmiento — all of whom left the country following the 1973 coup. Larraín represents a new generation: he is a child of the dictatorship, born three years after Allende’s ouster to a wealthy, powerful, and politically prominent family. His father, Hernán Larraín, is a senator, and his mother, Magdalena Matte, served as Chile’s housing minister from 2010 to 2011. No stranger to the marketplace, Larraín has produced television commercials and codirected an action-drama series on cocaine cartels for HBO Latin America, but thus far his overriding interest has been what we might call his birthright.

Given the charnel-house atmosphere of Tony Manero and Post Mortem, it’s striking that Larraín concludes his Pinochet trilogy on a note of near-giddy optimism. Although sunnier than the first two installments — it depicts the peaceful dismantling of the Pinochet regime by a 1988 plebiscite — No, like Larraín’s earlier films, has its supernatural aspect. Larraín’s subject is what the British cultural critic Raymond Williams once called the “magic system” of advertising. No is a feel-good movie that enacts, even as it satirizes, the sorcery that makes us feel good. There hasn’t been a more positive argument for advertising as a mass mood-altering drug since Don Draper pitched the Kodak Carousel as a personal time machine.

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is Gelb Professor of the Humanities at Cooper Union. His most recent book is Film After Film; or, What Became of 21st-Century Cinema? (Verso).

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