"Disappeared" detainees. Political executions. Torture. Rigged elections. Put these up for a vote by the people, and one wouldn't expect a nailbiter of an election. And yet, that's the story of No, Pablo Larraín's drama about 1988's up-or-down vote on Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and the advertising war waged to sway the populace.
The third film in Larraín's loose trilogy set in the Pinochet era, No casts Mexican star Gael García Bernal as ad man René Saavedra (a composite character representing José Manuel Salcedo and Enrique García), who—despite the risks to career, self and family—cannot help but join the "No" campaign as the key creative force behind twenty-seven nights of fifteen-minute videos to run adjacent to videos made by the "Yes" campaign. At the end of that run, a plebiscite will determine whether Pinochet gets another eight-year term, unopposed, or a new day for democracy will dawn.
The referendum on Pinochet allows for a symposium on the power of the visual image, especially as conveyed on television and in bite-size advertising. Saavedra argues for "familiar, attractive, optimistic" ad imagery, though many of his colleagues understandably want to hammer at the sins of Pinochet; besides, the "Yes" side isn't above going negative, both in its snarky video rejoinders and its harassment of the "No" team.
The light-night threats handed down from the ruling power and Saavedra's wide-eyed moppet at home (an unavoidable symbol of Chile's future) make for familiar tropes. Unexpectedly, this melodrama isn't what grabs attention here, but rather the film's sincere interest in the philosophies of political advertising, the strategies to win not the minds of the people through substance but rather the hearts of the people—ironically, through intelligently crafted superficiality.
In a way, No does the same, in its savvy casting of Bernal as the unlikely architect of a new Chile and Larraín's bold, perfect style choice to shoot the film in three-quarter-inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape: in other words, he swims upstream against high-definition with a defiantly lo-fi approach that's also ingeniously evocative of the historical period.
In a potent assist to this sense of authenticity, Larraín rounds up historical figures and weaves them with archival footage and recreations to merge his narrative with reality, as in a recreation of a broadcast that cuts from vintage video to new video of the same broadcaster, demonstrably the same man despite his whiter hair. Though not hiding the seams, Larraín creates a magical moment of art holding the mirror up to life.
No ably captures the cultural moment, clarifying how fear and a protectiveness of economic growth bolster the "Yes" side, and how perhaps only the successful campaigner for "Free Cola" could harness music, rebelliousness, and romance to make the sale for "No."
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]