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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Watching “No” and “Leviathan”

“No” is a pretty engrossing political thriller that often feels like a cross between “Mad Men” and “Argo.”

But its surfaces are grimy and grungy, rather than slick and sophisticated, an aesthetic choice that reflects the wearying, day-to-day ugliness of living under the brutal rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. The film concerns a chapter of history I was completely unaware of: the national plebiscite of 1988, in which Chileans were asked to vote on whether Pinochet should rule another eight years, or whether there should be a democratic presidential election. The vote was held under pressure from the international community, and was initially viewed by Pinochet as an easy way to legitimize his reign in the eyes of the world. Each night the Yes campaign, which urged citizens to vote for Pinochet, and the No campaign, which urged voters to reject Pinochet, aired campaign advertisements that were viewed throughout the country. “No” takes viewers inside the competing ad campaigns, focusing on a young advertising executive named Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), who is hired to produce the No campaign; his co-worker at his advertising agency, Lucho (Alfredo Castro), is a Pinochet loyalist tapped to run the Yes campaign.

We meet Lucho and Rene in the first scene, when they’re pitching an advertising campaign for a soft drink called Free. Rene, the son of a well-known political leftist, has recently returned to Chile after years in exile, and lives alone with his young son; his activist wife stops by from time to time, but views Rene’s advertising work — and the No campaign — with contempt, at least initially. But Rene is sharp, and he senses that Chileans are more likely to respond to an upbeat, glossily packaged advertising campaign than a negative campaign that emphasizes the abuses that have occurred under Pinochet.

“No” depicts the worlds of politics and advertising with humor and cynicism, suggesting that the success of the No campaign hinged upon Rene’s ability to transform the concept of democracy into an appealing commodity. Considering the film’s subject matter, and my familiarity with Larrain’s grim 2008 film “Tony Manero,” I was surprised at how light-hearted “No” was, although the tension steadily mounts throughout the film, as the threat of violence and reprisals intensifies. “Tony Manero,” about a Chilean criminal obsessed with John Travolta’s “Saturday Night Live” character during the time of Pinochet, is often characterized as a dark comedy, but I didn’t find myself laughing very much while I watched it: The film is violent, shocking and, like “No,” drained of color and beauty. Interestingly, “No” was shot on low definition, Sony U-matic magnetic tape, so as to resemble the TV broadcasts of the 1970s and 1980s, and the film really does feel like an artifact from an earlier era. “No” also uses clips from the real No campaign, which lends authenticity to the proceedings; American celebrities such as Jane Fonda and Christopher Reeve are featured in ads they filmed at the time, urging Chileans to vote no.

The closing scene SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! shows Lucho and Rene back at work, meeting with clients. Lucho appears to harbor no ill will toward Rene, introducing him as the ad man behind the “successful No campaign.” With this comment, the film points to a future where politics and advertising are two sides of the same coin, and the team that is better at marketing and sound bites will win.

I also caught the immersive and abstract experimental documentary “Leviathan” in Hudson over the weekend.

The film, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, depicts life on a fishing vessel off the coast of New Bedford, Mass.; it lacks narrative, characters (though we see the fishermen from time to time), and information — we aren’t told how long the boat will be at sea, or how many pounds of fish it catches each year, or how many lives are lost each year on fishing vessels. Instead, “Leviathan” provides sensations — the up and down, heaving movements of the boat on the water, the sounds of equipment and nets plunging beneath the sea, the cries of gulls flying and shouts of men — and some incredible images, such as starfish floating in the boat’s ghostly eddies.

“Leviathan” isn’t for everyone, and anyone predisposed to seasickness or nausea might have trouble watching it. But I found myself swept up in the film’s violent, elemental rhythms, and entranced by its unusual angles and sights and sounds. (The filmmakers used 11 waterproof cameras, strapping them to the fishermen, themselves and equipment.) And I should emphasize that “Leviathan” is an aural experience. The film’s soundtrack is filled with the noise of machinery, the sound of the boat, the oddly musical slap of fish slapping against the deck and each other.

“Leviathan” risks wearing out its welcome. Some shots are held a little too long, and I did sometimes feel a bit queasy. But the film is an experience unlike any other, and if you want to know what it feels like to be a commercial fishermen, performing dangerous, isolated work mostly at night, well, this is the film to watch.

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