A roomful of clients wait with anticipation for a presentation. A young executive, Rene Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), gravely speaks of what they about to see. It represents, he says, an exact reflection of the current social context. His older boss, Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), solemnly concurs. Then Rene presses “play,” and an insanely bouncy, energetic and inane cola commercial follows.
It’s funny, and it feels true. Welcome to the world of Chilean “mad men,” circa 1988.
An ad campaign is an ad campaign, whether you’re selling soap or a political idea. That’s one of the lessons underlined in No, an Oscar-nominated drama about the vote that ended the presidency of U.S.-backed Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. The United States had helped Pinochet’s bloody 1973 coup and subsequent reign of terror and murder; times change, however, and 15 years later even the Reagan administration realized that the dictatorship had to end sometime. So a simple vote was set up, in which “si” meant eight more years of Pinochet and “no” meant he was out.
Rene, who in addition to being a savvy ad man is a skateboarding egotist, is approached by a soft-spoken representative (Luis Gnecco) of the “no” forces to run their TV ad campaign. His task will be incredibly difficult because, one, the opposition is divided among 17 political parties with conflicting agendas, and, two, the Pinochet regime is likely to punish everyone involved in the “no” effort. But he agrees to do it.
The film is adapted from a play by Antonio Skármeta, but it betrays little of its stagebound roots. The film ranges from city to seashore, capturing the fraught political moment and the pain of the opposition.
For Rene, the personal is political, too: He comes from an exiled left-wing family; his estranged activist wife (Antonia Zegers) thinks his efforts are worse than worthless, and that they will provide PR cover when the regime steals the election; and his young son (Pascal Montero) becomes a target when it looks like the campaign is having an impact. Knowing the outcome has no effect on the tension the filmmakers create.
Formally, director Pablo Peirano decided to take us back to the ’80s by using vintage equipment. The cinematography is smeary and immediate, which gives that “you are there” feel; the shape of the screen is square, as if you are watching a vintage TV image. The latter is pleasingly jarring, though one can’t help but grimace at the eventual prospect of home HD-TV viewers setting their sets to cut off the top and bottom of the image to “fill the screen.”
The audience at the screening I attended was almost all old lefties like me, still burning with the hate of a thousand suns at the injustice the U.S. government helped visit on the people of Chile. This is too bad, because No has a lot to say about media, political manipulation and brute force, in an entertaining way, to everyone.