As far as sacred democratic moments go, the 1988 plebiscite ranks unrivalled in Chilean history. The non-violent triumph of the "no" option by 55.9%, which meant the end of the Pinochet dictatorship after more than 15 years, was a magical era for most of the country, one in which idealism proved to be stronger than fear.
For those in the majority, it was a plain choice between good and evil in the face of human rights violations; and its ethical dimension only grew bigger as years went by and Pinochet's crimes became more established. This feeling of moral righteousness was summarized a few days after the referendum by a famous newspaper headline: "WE WON THE BATTLE WITH A PENCIL!"
Predictably, the fact that the first movie on the referendum was centered on a fictional publicist of the "No"'s famed television campaign (René Saavedra, played by Gael García Bernal) raised more than a few eyebrows. The Oscar-nominated film has been accused of distorting history and of minimizing the role of politicians and citizens in the epic victory. Yet to its director, Pablo Larraín, these reactions came as anything but a surprise.
"We could have adopted many points of view," said Larraín, 36, on the phone from Chile. "We could have told the story from the perspective of the politicians, who worked hard for many years toward this triumph, or the people of Chile, who were the ones who actually defeated Pinochet. But we thought that taking the perspective of the publicist was where there was a sharper edge, where we could develop the most subversive exercise."
After the film became an Academy Award contender in the "Foreign Language Film" category, his approach gained more traction. "I feel that there's a conflict with fiction in Chile," Larraín said of his detractors in a tone that is mildly professorial. "Every time we see ourselves on screen, there are groups who want to legitimize an ideological perspective about what happens in that film. That is History's role. At best, what this movie does is a reflection on what took place."
The most surprising aspect of the backlash against the film's alleged historical inaccuracies is that its blur of fiction and history is precisely what makes the movie work. Yes, Larraín's decision to shoot with an obsolete U-matic video camera allowed him to seamlessly jump in and out of archival footage, creating the illusion that his fictional images are closer to a documentary. But the beauty of his trick is in its transparency. Instead of trying to fool you, he invites you in on the magic: in several sections he uses an actor or politician in 2012 before cutting to the younger, 1988 version of themselves. The result is part nostalgia, part commentary on the power of visual language, in storytelling.
"I do believe that the publicists played a very important role in Pinochet's defeat," added Larraín in reference to the 15-minute television slot that included a famous anthem and a rainbow-themed logo and is at the center of the plot. "They catalyzed things that were up in the air. If it weren't for them, we might have not had the same result."
The decision to embrace the film's history-meets-fiction happened in pre-production, during the technical tests Larraín and his team conducted with the vintage cameras they had tracked down. "When we realized that our archival footage turned into fiction, and our own images turned into a documentary, we discovered that they could blend to such an extent that their final meaning was altered," the director said. "You realize that you have an incredibly powerful tool in your hands. And when you start to manage that, it is truly beautiful, because the film never leaves the realm of fiction. It is, as the characters mention, 'a copy of the copy of the copy,' something that folds over itself several times, to the point that you don't know what's real and what´s not. And in a world with so much information like the one we live in, I thought it was very poignant that the material we were working with was undistinguishable from the archival one."
One key ingredient in turning "NO" from a local story into one with international appeal is, of course, the presence of a star like García Bernal. Yet his contribution to the film goes beyond name recognition. His portrayal of a conflicted antihero —one who seems more eager to deliver the perfect marketing campaign than one concerned about democracy— is key in making the multiple layers of the film into a convincing blend.
"He put the movie on his shoulders and pushed it forward with impressive craft," said Larraín, who also praised García Bernal's attempt at the complicated Chilean accent without the need of a coach. "What he achieved has a lot to do with a certain mystery that he carries, and the way he approaches his work. It was a true privilege to have him on the film."
When it was announced that "NO" was among the five movies competing for the best "Foreign Language Film" Oscar —the first Chilean movie ever to do so— Larraín's initial public reaction was one of humility. He said that thinking in winning the statuette was "ridiculous," particularly considering that the great favorite was Michael Haneke's "Amour." But now he seems to have raised his stakes on what will happen on Sunday.
"That was only my first reaction, in the heat of the moment," he said, without losing his serious tone. "Even when there are many good movies in the competition, the Best Foreign Film is a category that has proven to be unpredictable. So anything could happen."