In her favorable review of Pablo Larrain‘s No (which I’ve been raving about since catching it at last year’s Cannes Film Festival), N.Y. Times critic Manohla Dargis says that anyone who doesn’t challenge brute cops who are hurting a loved one is a coward. Inside a police station? Under a brutal South American dictatorship?

“As it is, Rene [Gael Garcia Bernal] is one of those compromised characters whose obvious virtues run a tight race with his flaws. In one early scene he doesn’t just stand by when [his ex-partner and mother of his son] Veronica is beaten by cops; he also recoils from the violence. It’s unclear if Rene is a garden-variety coward, afraid of physical harm, or whether his fear is a manifestation of a deeper moral stain.”

If you’re afraid of getting punched or kicked or clubbed you’re a candy-ass? Everybody recoils from violence. I’ve been there and the first reaction is always to flinch and withdraw. You have to push past that and do the stand-up thing, of course, but I’m not sure that being “afraid of physical harm” constitutes cowardice.

We all like to think that we’d all “do something” if someone near and dear is being shoved around by the bulls, and I agree that anyone who cowers in fear in such a situation lacks intestinal fortitude. You need to rush forward and gesture and say or shout something — “Hey, leave her alone! Get the fuck off her!” But a guy who dives right into a group of cop thugs who are shoving and beating their captives…? I’ve tasted this. Anyone who’s been in the immediate vicinity of brutality knows what I’m talking about.