Take the backroom political machinations of Lincoln, add in the showbiz sleight of hand of Argo, and you’ll get something like No, a cunning and richly enjoyable combination of high-stakes drama and media satire from Chilean director Pablo Larrain.
The film is the third and sunniest in Larrain’s loose trilogy of films about life under Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990), exploring the twisted relationship between a totalitarian regime’s brutal reality and a nation’s fantasy entertainment life. The films include 2008’s black comedy, Tony Manero, about a middle-aged sociopath’s obsession with John Travolta’s character from Saturday Night Fever, and Post Mortem, about the relationship between a morgue worker and a burlesque dancer against the backdrop of a 1973 coup that saw thousands killed, tortured and forced into exile.
With No, Larrain takes the same dynamic to a different level: The fantasy life is now the world of consumer advertising, which in the 1988 Chilean plebiscite eventually overwhelmed the brutal reality of the Pinochet era. In this fictionalized account of events, Gael Garcia Bernal plays advertising pitch man René Saavedra, who ends up running the No side’s campaign. He has been working in Mexico for several years, before returning home to work as a wealthy ad executive.
Dressed in a casual pullover sweater, with a groovy beard and longish hair, René’s a hip ad man of the thirtysomething generation. He rides a skateboard to work and has a smooth patter of psycho-babble to explain his use of cheap surrealism (a mime!) and sexy, gauzy montages of pretty models to sell fizzy drinks, microwaves and soap operas. These ads, he assures his clients with great seriousness, represent the “social context” of Chile and its dreams of the future.
In the real social context, of course, freedom is a commodity in short supply but, as the film begins, there’s a sliver of hope for change. Pressured by foreign governments to democratize, Pinochet has allowed a token compromise. He’ll hold a plebiscite on his dictatorship, and the opposition groups can share 15 minutes a day of television time for a month to make their case for the No side. The government, of course, has its 15 minutes a day to promote eight years of economic stability and freedom from Marxists under Pinochet.
René, who’s a single father of a young boy, still carries a torch for his former wife, the impatient activist Veronica (Antonia Zegers), who holds his work in contempt. We learn early on that René has no heroic instincts. When he sees a policeman batter his wife with a baton after a protest, he makes no move to intervene. But he would like to impress her and he has a family connection to the No side’s socialist leader, Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), so he agrees to take on the campaign.
There are 17 equally earnest opposition groups that make up the No coalition. All of them are desperate to seize this chance to break their long-imposed silence and condemn Pinochet. They assume the plebiscite is a fraud to legitimize the dictatorship, but they want a moment to cry out against injustice. Rene is perplexed by their attitude: But don’t they want to win?
From a marketing perspective, he sees a chance to put his product over in the marketplace, and if that means selling regime change with a We Are the World-style charity video, why not? Say no to boring old leaders and military parades; say yes to the sexy, bright future, all set to a chipper jingle: “Chile, happiness is coming!”
Throughout the film, Larrain uses clips from the original, painfully earnest opposition ads, as well as the government’s Soviet-style propaganda commercials, along with contemporary television footage. Daringly, he made the decision to give the entire film a period-appropriate look, shooting it with early eighties’ Sony U-Matic video cameras that make it resemble smeary desaturated music videos from decades ago. Though initially off-putting, the rough visual style lets us immerse in the period’s visual tacky lo-def texture, while creating a continuum between the archival and freshly shot dramatic material.
In any case, by now we’re soon too swept up in the story to notice. As René’s frivolous, pretty ads make the government look not just brutal, but stiff and humourless, the No side surges and tensions rise. Complicating matters, René must fight against the internal subversion of a holier-than-though director (Marcial Tagle), who can’t stop himself from trying to make the No campaign go more negative. As well, René’s own boss, Lucho (Alfredo Castro), starts working for the government’s Yes campaign.
While the intimidation of government goons adds some thriller suspense to the film’s second half, most of the focus is on the back and forth of the hype wars, as the government campaigns change course in the face of the No surge. Desperately, they try to soften its image by putting the dictator in a civilian suit and showing his gentle, baby-kissing side. “If I made mistakes … forgive me,” asks the dictator.
But the No side, becomes emboldened, taking its consumer pitch to another level. Actual ads from Hollywood stars – Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve and Richard Dreyfus – bolster their cause and tell the world that Chile is now ready to swim in the global pop-culture ocean.
For a film with such a definitively negative title, No is uplifting and often very funny, but, unlike many Hollywood movies, does not pander. Nor does it suggest that the advertising campaign was the sole cause of the success of the No referendum, or even that its driving agent was really all that heroic.
Garcia Bernal plays his role adroitly with a light restraint, and although he’s sad about his failed marriage, his focus is narrow. He’s a typical modern media man, bored by seriousness, fond of toys and novelties and a zealous believer in the power of the pitch. By the film’s end, you’re left with the conviction that it may have been mostly luck that he worked for the right side.