No (R) (118 min.) — One of the last and worst Latin American dictators propped up by the U.S. government was Chile's Augusto Pinochet, whose regime ended with a referendum ouster in 1990. It was the kind of election the dictator should have been able to rig in his sleep.
Instead, Pinochet fell prey to an irreverent ad campaign that inspires Pablo Larrain's movie, a recent Oscar nominee for best foreign language film. The referendum was simple: a "yes" vote would retain Pinochet in power and a "no" vote would take him out. At the election's outset a majority of voters planned to abstain, convinced that voting against Pinochet would either be in vain, or a cause for disappearing as dissidents had before.
Into the process comes René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), a fictional character based on a real person. Rene is a successful advertising consultant, first seen showing off a peppy new soft drink commercial while he's prepping new ads for microwave ovens. Rene winds up selling politics in the same fashion, with humor underscoring Pinochet's atrocities, all-star endorsements of voting "no" and a catchy jingle.
The style is considered too frivolous for such serious circumstances until it starts working. Then proponents of voting "yes" begin imitating Rene's ads, co-opting their messages to the point where it's difficult to tell which side is being supported. The fact that Rene's ad agency boss (Alfredo Castro) is designing the "yes" campaign further complicates matters.
Yet for everything riding on this election, Larrain and screenwriter Pedro Peirano (adapting a stage play) fashion a dispassionate movie. No is more concerned with the irony of Rene's brash creativity defeating the status quo than personal triumphs against Pinochet. The movie needs one or two central characters directly affected by the dictatorship, in order to create more tension around a conclusion that's already known.
Larrain does a fine job of making No look and sound authentic to its time period, although the VHS-quality photography, all washed-out with colors bleeding together as camcorders did in the '80s, is an occasional irritant. And for all the time spent on Rene's dealing with his militant ex-wife (Antonia Zegers) the ad man doesn't seem to have much at personal stake with the election besides a plus on his resume. A few nods to being under surveillance as the election tightens isn't enough.
But the movie succeeds at telling a relatively untold story with occasional surprises, like archival endorsements of voting "no" by Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss. In addition to the ads, Chile's TV campaign process at the time was so offbeat — each side limited to 15 minutes per night for 27 days — that our election system could take some hints.
Shown with English subtitles, exclusively at BayWalk 20 in St. Petersburg. B
Steve Persall, Times movie critic