Chile submits 'No'… will the Academy say yes?

Posted by · 5:50 pm · September 25th, 2012

A flurry of new titles have been added to the pile of Best Foreign Language Film Oscars submissions — which currently numbers 53 — in the last day. Among them are films from such one-time nominees as Georgia and Vietnam, as well, hearteningly, the first ever entry from Kenya. I’m always pleased to see more African films in the mix.

Though I need to investigate the new additions further, only one of them immediately strikes me as newsworthy — and it’s a film I’ve been half-expecting and wholly hoping would show up here since its Cannes debut back in May. Given its combination of acclaim, awards and name appeal, you might have thought Pablo Larrain’s superb political satire “No” a shoo-in to be Chile’s submission, but there was always the realistic worry that the inscrutable politics of national selection would determine otherwise.

Three years ago, for example, everyone expected the Chileans to submit the Sundance-laurelled critical darling “The Maid,” which ultimately nabbed a Golden Globe nod. The selectors, however, ditched the accessible domestic drama (and with it, their best shot at a nomination) for the far less popular political prisoner biopic “Dawson, Island 10.”

Happily, more sensible heads prevailed, and “No” was picked — presumably assisted by the fact that, as a fact-rooted story of rival campaigns in the 1988 referendum that ended the Pinochet dictatorship, this otherwise broadly entertaining dramedy has the ring of “importance” that so often impresses selection committees. It’s Larrain’s second time representing his country in the race, though he’s a far stronger contender than he was four years ago for “Tony Manero,” a remarkable disco-era black comedy that sat far outside the Academy’s comfort zone. (In between, he made his best film, “Post Mortem,” an even more mordantly cold-blooded study of 1970s social meltdown in the country; the Chileans didn’t submit it, but the Academy would never have bitten anyway.)

“No,” however, is a different, and somewhat friendlier, animal. Completing the director’s Pinochet trilogy with his bone-dry wit and perspicacity intact, but a grander, more uplifting revolutionary sweep — plus an international star, Gael Garcia Bernal, on strong form in the lead — it’s much more of an audience-pleaser than either “Manero” or “Mortem.”

That much was clear from the film’s very first screening at Cannes, where hearty cheers filled the auditorium as the credits rolled. “No” was a slow-burning hit on the Croisette: though it was one of my most anticipated films of the festival (“Post Mortem” made my Top 10 in 2010), it wasn’t on most US critics’ radars to begin with, thanks to Cannes brass unaccountably relegating Larrain to the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar instead of the Competition, or even Un Certain Regard.

More mainstream tastemakers caught the film at repeat screenings, as word of mouth grew loud enough for Sony Pictures Classics to buy the US rights mid-festival, a few days before it won the Fortnight’s top award. That marked a sizable step up from the boutique distributors that handled Larrain’s last two films Stateside: in case you need reminding, Sony are the Weinsteins of the foreign Oscar race, their films having emerged triumphant in five of the last six years, with plenty of other nominees to pad them out. (This year, they also have a highly likely nominee in “Amour.”) 

I wrote then that “if Chile submit the film as their Academy Award entry this year — and they’d be foolish not to — it’s blend of the personal and political is something that could well appeal to more adventurous voters in the foreign-language branch, particularly with Sony’s promotional powers on its side.” I stand by that, particularly given how the buzz for “No” has only grown in volume through further festival exposure. Having never cracked even the shortlist in 16 previous attempts, Chile have a serious shot at securing their first ever nomination in the category. 

In my review at Cannes, I described “No” as follows: “Dropping the previous films’ conceit of filtering political unrest through the blankly blinking eyes of half-aware civilians, ‘No’ instead heads straight into the machine: set around Chile’s 1988 referendum that wound up overthrowing the longstanding Pinochet dictatorship, its core conflict involves not soldiers but two rival ad-agency colleagues charged with building the electoral advertising campaigns for the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ factions. Part ‘Mad Men’ in stonewashed denim, part south-of-the-border Paddy Chayefsky, it’s an irresistible story hook that provides ample material for Larrain’s own deadpan satirical eye, not least in the often spectacularly banal advertising under scrutiny.”

That jaded emphasis on the nuts, bolts and frequent absurdities of political advertising strategy could resonate with voters weary of hearing about campaigns — whether in the context of the Oscar race itself or, less trivially, the American presidential election. If it somehow slips through the net in the branch vote (traditionalist voters might take issue with Larrain’s ingenious use of U-matic stock to give his own film the texture of archive material), it’s hard to imagine the executive committee won’t stand up for it. Every year, there’s a lot of talk about “zeitgeist” films in the race: if anyone’s looking for one in this category, “No” is the closest thing there is.

Check out the updated submissions list at the category’s Contenders page.

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