In 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who came to power in a bloody coup in 1973, decided to hold a national referendum — a simple yes or no vote — on whether he should extend his rule by eight years. It was supposed to be an exercise in sham democracy to stem international criticism and legitimize his government. With much of the political opposition jailed, dead or intimidated, and opposition parties legalized only months before, the General was sure of a win.

As it turned out, the people voted no and sent him packing.

Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “No” — partially based on a play by Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta — explores this topic via a fascinating angle: the ad agency that brilliantly fashioned an upbeat, pop-culture-friendly anti-Pinochet message during the lead up to the referendum. In place of dour political attacks on his record of torture and repression, they went with rainbows, smiles and the slogan “Joy is coming.”

Director Pablo Larrain
Run Time 118 minutes
Language Spanish (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Now showing

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, an ad-agency director and single father with a rat-tail mullet who specializes in targeting younger demographics with 1980s-MTV-styled ads. When he’s approached by the anti-Pinochet campaign, he hesitates but accepts. We sense, from his encounters with his radical-activist ex-wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers), Rene is not all that political but the challenge of getting the entire nation to buy freedom appeals to him.

Larrain shot the entire film on vintage ’80s video cameras, which gives it an undeniable period feel and allows the director to seamlessly work in actual “No” campaign commercials and newscasts and the like, but the price paid is an exceedingly ugly film on the big screen: blurry and full of color bleed. Whether or not this was a good choice is highly debatable.

If you’re uninterested in Latin American politics, “No” is not your film: The thriller elements are not strong enough to make it work on the same level as, say, “Argo” (2012). “No” is more successful at dropping us into morally ambiguous territory and capturing that moment in time when politics became more about selling feelings than policy.

Rene, although backing the anti-Pinochet movement at great personal risk — his son is threatened and harassed by police — winds up producing an ad campaign that looks just like a soft-drink commercial, with generically photogenic people from every walk of life singing and dancing to a “We Are the World” knock-off theme song.

While it’s exhilarating to see this flummox a police state, the reality is that this sort of vaguely upbeat campaign had already been done by American advertising executive Hal Riney in 1984 (of all years). His “Morning in America” ads for Ronald Reagan showed farmers on tractors, gently waving flags, beaming brides and white picket fences to soft sell the very Republican Party that had backed Pinochet’s coup and was currently backing about every torture-based regime in Latin America. This sword clearly cuts both ways.

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