DALLAS -- Dictators and strongmen are more likely to be shot down than step down.
That's why what happened Oct. 5, 1988 -- when the citizens of Chile voted "no" to the militarist Augusto Pinochet regime staying in power for eight more years -- seems so strange. Instead of sending in the goon squads, Pinochet and his pals agreed to the results, paving the way for the South American country to return to democracy.
This explosion of people power is captured in all its rebellious glory in No, the Chilean film that was one of this year's five nominees in Oscar's foreign-language film category. No, which opens at the Landmark Magnolia in Dallas and Angelika Plano on March 15 and then the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on March 29, focuses on the young ad exec (played by Gael García Bernal) who crafted the "no" campaign that ultimately helped topple a general who had seized power in a 1973 coup.
Seemingly influenced by everything from pop art to new wave, the colorful campaign emboldened an anti-Pinochet movement that had sometimes grown weary and tired under the strain of repression. "I remember when the campaign aired, how shocking it was," recalls Pablo Larraín, 36, Chile's best-known director and the man behind No the movie, during a press stop at the Crescent Hotel in Dallas.
"Those years in my country, everything was so gray and so dark and these guys came out dancing and saying 'Chile, la alegría ya viene [Chile, the joy is coming].' Every day when it aired, it was amazing how the entire country was looking at it," says Larraín, who was 12 at the time. "It's like when Chile plays in the World Cup; there's nobody on the streets."
For North American eyes, No is not only unique for its subject matter -- the streets of Santiago don't show up on many multiplex screens -- but for the way it was shot. The entire movie is made to look like video from 25 years ago. Forget hi-def or even lo-def -- this is no-def.
"We knew that at least one-third of the film was coming from [old] footage," Larraín says. "I thought if we shot in HD or on film, it would look so different from the footage and you would be breaking the illusion of the audience all the time.... We wanted to create an illusion where the audience wouldn't know whether they were looking at fiction or the real thing."
No marks the third time Larraín has tried to come to terms with the legacy of Pinochet in Chile. In Tony Manero (2008), set during the late '70s, a Saturday Night Fever-obsessed dancer turns to murder to deal with his personal demons. That was followed in 2010 with Post Mortem, a drama and love story set in the waning days of Salvador Allende's presidency in 1973, just before the ascension of Pinochet.
Some observers have called these three films a trilogy, a chronology of sorts of the beginning, middle and end of the Pinochet era.
"I never expected to do three movies [on this topic] and I have to admit the idea of a trilogy was something that the press called it," he says. "But it does make a lot of sense; these three movies are on the same subject.... [But this subject] is in the head, soul and the heart of my country. It's everywhere."
Still, Larraín says his next project will have nothing to do with Pinochet.
"All I know is I'm not doing another film on the subject," he says with a laugh. "I've been working on this film and then traveling and talking about it for a year. It's very interesting but I'm exhausted."
As for what he's going to do, he's not sure. "It's so hard to be involved in a new project when you're doing this," he says, noting Europe was next on his No promotional itinerary. "I just can't think about anything else right now."
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571