Sundance Film Festival 2013 | Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void, Pablo Larrain's No

Gael Garc�a Bernal in No

Gael Garc�a Bernal in No

Call it the calm before the storm: Though well-wishers had warned me of instant, sidewalk-clogging traffic, my first morning in Park City was mild in every sense of the word. (The temperature, far from subzero, hovered around 20 degrees—no great adjustment for a traveling Chicagoan.) Only scattered festival parking signs, coupled with a double-take-provoking Mike White sighting, offered any indication that this sleepy ski community would soon be invaded by thousands of tourists, cinephiles and industry professionals.

But then, it's still early. Day one of Sundance seems to have been designed to ease all of us—attendees, organizers and locals alike—into the ten-day festivities to come. The first handful of screenings don't start until this evening; my week-long movie binge kicks off with May in the Summer, one of the 16 films in this year's U.S. Dramatic Competition. In the meantime, here are some thoughts on a couple of Sundance titles, both pretty exceptional, that I caught in the run-up to the fest.

A hit at last year's Cannes Film Festival and an unlikely contender in this year's Oscar Foreign Language race, the Chilean drama No chronicles a momentous international sea change: the moment when political campaigns finally fell, perhaps irreversibly, under the jurisdiction of advertisers. (Mad Men's first season depicts the seeds of this shift, but it wouldn't truly take hold for another two decades or so.) The film is set in Chile circa 1988, when the country still lived in fear of Augusto Pinochet. Under pressure from the international community, the ruling administration agreed to a plebiscite, in which citizens could essentially vote the dictator out of office. Confident in their chances—the referendum was conceived as a lip-service formality, as the people would likely be too intimidated to vote against Pinochet—the powers that were even granted the opposition 15 minutes of TV airtime every day. What case could they really make, after all, when the rest of the nation's media was pushing pro-Pinochet propaganda 24/7?

It's from this heavy subject matter that director Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero) constructs a surprisingly light-footed, even amusing history lesson. The "No" side—as in "no, we don't want eight more years of this tyrant"—secures the services of a marketing wiz (dependably terrific Mexican movie star Gael García Bernal). The ringer's first task is to convince his employers, who want to use the airtime to expose Pinochet's war crimes, that depressing is not a winning strategy. His alternative tactic: selling the cause like you would a soda, with jingles and youthful energy, all equating happiness to a nay vote. Larrain, shooting in the drab, outdated style of '80s television, salutes the bravery of this enthusiastic ad man while also interrogating his methods. (The movie asks whether it was morally acceptable to marginalize the real stakes of the campaign, even if doing so was a smarter approach.) García Bernal, meanwhile, plays his character as a fascinating enigma—a shrewd huckster whose fighting spirit seems to stem less from political motives than the thrill of a real challenge.

Speaking of uncertain motives: Newcomer Hadas Yaron delivers a fascinatingly unreadable performance in Rama Burshtein's gorgeous Fill the Void. The young actress plays an 18-year-old Israeli girl growing up among Hasidic Jews. Her parents seem set on marrying her off—first to a frumpy peer, then to the solemn husband of her older sister, who dies giving birth. The story, a tale of romantic autonomy squashed by social obligation, recalls any number of pre-feminist literary classics. Yet, as in a relocated genre experiment like Brick, swapping the setting makes familiar plot elements feel new.

It helps that Fill the Void peers in on such an interesting and infrequently explored subculture. Burshtein, raised in a community very similar to the one she depicts here, somehow manages to approach this insular world with both awed reverence and a critical edge. Yaron internalizes the film's devotion-versus-desire conflict, her aloofness wavering during heated encounters with her would-be husband (Yiftach Klein, Darcy-ish in his stern passion). By the end, it's hard to say what she's feeling; such ambiguity leaves you eager to dive back into this gorgeous import, which I'll gladly revisit when it opens in Chicago sometime this spring.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)