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‘No’ finds Gael Garcia Bernal campaigning against Pinochet

Actor Gael Garcia Bernal, left, and director Pablo Larrain on the set of the movie "No."
(Tomas Dittburn, Sony Pictures Classics)

In the United States it’s business as usual for political ideas to be branded and sold like breakfast cereals. But when those marketing tools were used in Chile in 1988, the outcome reshaped an entire nation — and generated the stuff of high drama.

Twenty-five years ago, a majority of Chileans just said no to extending the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Only it wasn’t guerrilla revolutionaries that toppled the right-wing strongman. It was a slick, Madison Avenue-style advertising campaign that urged Chileans to vote “No” on Pinochet’s plebiscite and yes for restoring democracy after 15 years of the general’s autocratic rule.

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“The reality of what happened in Chile in those days, in ’88, for some reason it’s not on the history map, but it is a turning point,” said Gael García Bernal, the Mexican actor who stars as a hotshot, pro-democracy ad executive in director Pablo Larraín’s “No,” an Oscar nominee for foreign-language film. “It was the first time a dictator was overthrown by democratic means.”

VIDEO: ‘No’ trailer

If the events depicted in “No” offer a case study in democratic means, they also raise ticklish questions about what democracy itself means. As shown in the Sony Pictures Classics release, which opens Feb. 15, what made the “No” campaign radically subversive and highly controversial, even among its supporters, was that it often avoided mentioning politics or Pinochet directly.

Instead, the campaign blanketed Chile’s airwaves with messages that could’ve been lifted from a Pepsi spot: feel-good images of people singing, children playing, rainbows, mimes mugging and families holding picnics, with slogans like “Happiness is coming.”

By accentuating the positive rather than dwelling on the thousands of people who were tortured, killed and imprisoned under Pinochet, the “No” campaign undercut the “Yes” campaign’s dour warnings that turning Pinochet out would mean turning the country over to communist mobs. In the end, the despot was defeated by the same capitalist values system he claimed to champion and despite the “Yes” campaign outspending the “No” forces by an estimated 30 to 1 margin.

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“Pinochet never even dream about it, he never thought, he never knew, that he create his own poison,” Larraín said in mildly offbeat English during a recent L.A. stopover with Bernal to promote the film. “That’s why it’s so interesting, and that is a huge paradox.”

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In the film the paradoxes swirl around René Saavedra (Bernal), a composite character based on José Manuel Salcedo and Enrique García, two architects of the real-life “No” campaign. Bernal plays him as a brash, initially somewhat apolitical maverick who takes on the challenge despite the disapproval of his conservative ad-agency boss (Alfredo Castro) and the further strains it imposes on his marriage to his estranged, leftist spouse (Antonia Zegers, who is married to Larraín).

The film’s tone, alternately suspenseful and intimate, with a steady background hum of unease, may remind viewers of dark political dramas like “All the President’s Men.” It has performed well in limited release in Chile, Brazil and other countries, the director said.

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Bernal, 34, who attained leading-man stature playing a hyper-hormonal child-man in “Y Tu Mamá También” (2001) and the young Ernesto “Che” Guevara in “The Motorcycle Diaries” (2004), had known Larraín for several years before signing on to the part. Canana Films, the Mexican production company that Bernal runs with his friends Diego Luna and Pablo Cruz, had distributed Larraín’s prize-winning “Tony Manero” (2008). Set in 1978, that film is a character-study-cum-allegory about a fiftysomething murderous Chilean petty criminal who escapes gloomy political reality through his obsession with John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever.”

“Tony Manero,” “No” and Larraín’s previous feature “Post Mortem” (2010), set around the 1973 U.S.-backed military coup in which Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected President Salvador Allende, form a kind of trilogy about a subject that still bedevils Chile, the legacy of the dictadura.

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That makes it a rich vein of ideas for novelists, artists and filmmakers, Larraín said, especially since Pinochet died before he could be brought to trial for his crimes. “Since we never got to really know what happened, and to achieve justice, what happens is that the subject of the dictatorship has become an invisible truth,” he said. “So fiction has a chance to really talk about it … since it’s something you’re not going to grab. It’s like talking to a ghost.”

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For Larraín, 36, who was only a child when the events in his trilogy took place, making “No” was an education. For research, he interviewed dozens of former politicians, ad executives, campaign specialists and others. To re-create the look of the era and blend it with actual archival footage, the filmmakers used retrofitted video cameras.

The director said that he and screenwriter Pedro Peirano, a co-writer of the 2009 allegorical comedy-drama “The Maid,” had to leave out a number of sub-themes to create a coherent narrative out of a complicated historical chapter that bitterly divides Chileans. (Larraín said that his mother and father, who’s now a conservative-party senator, supported the “Yes” campaign at the time. They liked the film, he added.)

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In some ways, “No” echoes the story line of another fact-based Oscar nominee — Ben Affleck’s “Argo.” Both movies illuminate how the propaganda machinery of popular culture can be harnessed to serve political ends.

“No” ends on a decidedly more ambivalent, less triumphalist note than “Argo,” implying that Chile’s embrace of free-market “neo-liberalism” has been something of a mixed blessing. But it affirms the value of loud, messy democracy over its authoritarian alternatives.

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“It’s not an epic that was created by a screenwriter, director, whatever,” Larraín said. “It was created by the entire country.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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