Say yes to “No.” An entire country did, causing a political earthquake that uprooted a tenacious dictatorship and formed the basis of this smart, involving and provocative new film.
Starring Gael García Bernal, “No” is inspired by a real-life 1988 scenario that marked the beginning of the end for Chile’s brutal Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. It’s an irresistible fable of sorts about the power of counter-intuitive thinking, but it is also something more.
As put together by some of Chile’s top cinematic talents, a hit at Cannes and one of the five foreign-language Oscar nominees this year, “No” is also unexpectedly amusing and as savvy as it gets about the psychology of the political process.
Because it explores the notion that voting is as much an emotional act as an intellectual one, “No” becomes a fascinating examination of what political strategizing looks like on the ground, a peek at the machinations used and the strings pulled to adroitly manipulate voters. And it’s all done in the context of an involving personal drama.
“No” is directed by Pablo Larraín and is part of a trilogy (“Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem” are the other two) he made on the Pinochet era. The film’s screenwriter Pedro Peirano, who co-wrote 2009’s splendid “The Maid,” based his script on an unproduced play by Chilean novelist Antonio Skármeta. (He wrote the novel that became the Oscar-nominated “Il Postino.”
Before the story kicks in, type on the screen provides essential background: In 1973, a military coup deposed Chile’s elected president, Salvador Allende, and Gen. Augusto Pinochet took over the country. Fifteen years later several factors pressured Pinochet to agree to a yes or no referendum on his rule. For the month leading up to the election, each side would get 15 minutes a day of uncensored television time to make its case to the public. The “No” vote’s time slot was the unpromising one of midnight to 12:15 a.m.
The subversive wit that characterizes “No” presents itself almost immediately as we meet the intense young René Saavedra (Bernal) talking with so much gravity about how Chile is ready to think seriously about the future that it comes as a shock to discover that what he’s discussing is a commercial spot for a soft drink called Free.
René (a composite character) is passionate about advertising, and though we discover he grew up outside the country as the son of a movement exile, he is resolutely apolitical. Which is why it comes as a surprise both to René and his conservative ad agency boss Lucho Guzmán (an excellent Alfredo Castro) when he’s approached by left-wing politician Urrutia (Luis Gnecco) to mastermind the “No” campaign.
Also incredulous is René's estranged wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), a committed, borderline self-righteous leftist activist who has abandoned her husband and their son. She has zero faith that anything a softie like René can do can make a difference against as ruthless an opponent as Pinochet.
The Mexican Bernal is well cast as an individual who spent his formative years outside Chile; he also exudes a soft-spoken, even mysterious charisma. Strong yet vulnerable, with magnetic eyes that can also look innocent and confused, Bernal is exactly right as a man who has quiet confidence in himself and his work when no one else does.
René's first challenge is to confront the 16 political parties who have joined to form the No coalition. Not really believing they have a chance to win, the No folks want to use their time to educate the population about the horrors of the Pinochet regime, emphasizing the torture, the disappearances and the deaths. René's succinct response: “This doesn’t sell.”
In addition to dealing with those who feel that “history will blame them” if they don’t detail the evils, René also has to reach the major blocs of people who are not planning to participate at all, including older voters who are victims of “learnt hopelessness” and younger ones who think the whole thing is fixed.
René's against the grain idea is to identify the No vote with everything that is fun, to in fact run a campaign, complete with a rainbow symbol, whose slogan is the simple, seductive “Chile, happiness is coming.”
More than describing the campaign, “No” utilizes a big chunk of screen time playing many of the actual commercials that ran in 1988. Larraín also made the unusual decision to shoot his entire film with a vintage 1980s U-matic video camera so that his and the vintage footage would match, enhancing the film’s sense of verisimilitude.
Larraín and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong also strove to shoot “No” in an intimate, almost cinéma vérité style, which emphasizes the personal stakes for René as the Pinochet regime starts to recognize his effectiveness and takes countermeasures.
Though the story of the No campaign is a matter of public record, a recent New York Times article revealed that the film has been criticized in Chile for downplaying the importance of a massive grass roots get out the vote campaign masterminded by that country’s left.
But even if “No” is not the whole truth — and no film is — its pungent dialogue and involving characters tell a delicious and very pertinent tale. And the messages it delivers, its thoughts on the workings of democracy and the intricacies of personality, are just as valuable and entertaining — maybe even more so.
MPAA rating: R, for language
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: Landmark, West Los Angeles; Sundance Cinema, West Hollywood
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