Admen in Pinochet’s Chile

It’s finally getting a little easier to look at Gael García Bernal and not see the young man from Y Tu Mamá También. García Bernal has hardly seemed to age since that 2002 film, but as René Saavedra, in the Oscar-nominated Chilean film No, he has a scrappy beard dotted with just enough gray to make him believable as the father of a young son.

René is a “creative,” the mind behind new, modern advertising campaigns in 1988 Chile. His work is snappy, full of the fast cuts, happy faces and overwrought slogans that are now par for the advertising course. He’s not a political creature, though Chile faces a historic election: International pressure has led military dictator Augusto Pinochet to put his leadership up for vote. A yes vote grants Pinochet another eight years of rule; a no results in an open presidential election.

To persuade voters, the NO and YES sides each get 15 minutes of television airtime every day for 27 days. The stodgy, cocky, conservative YES faction relies on patriotism and power; the leaders of the NO hire René, who goes to work selling the concept of freedom, complete with women in leotards, catchy jingles and dudes breaking into dance moves because they’re just that happy. 

No is a quiet, insinuating film, darkly funny and occasionally tense as the opposition begins to threaten René and his colleagues. Director Pablo Larraín’s choice to shoot on video in an almost square (4:3) aspect ratio firmly roots the story in its era. The scenes shot for the film blend seamlessly with archival footage; everything is squared off, constrained, slightly fuzzy, prone to glare and ever-shifting close-ups. It’s a little hard to watch, at first, for an eye retrained by widescreen TVs and high-definition, but the effect is worth it. 

Quietly ambitious, René isn’t at all political, unlike his ex-wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers). Fiery and angry, Veronica is an excellent foil for René, but she’s not in the film nearly enough. Larraín stays focused on the campaign, on the once-unlikely bedfellows of politics and advertising, finding dark humor in the way René’s ads carefully dangled a shiny carrot in front of voters, rather than reminding them of what Pinochet’s regime had put them through. 

No is such an intimate film — the cramped screen emphasizes this, as does the frequent presence of René’s young son  — that it’s not until hours after viewing it that discomfort starts to seep in. We’re meant to root for René and the NO, of course, and we do, but what we’re rooting for becomes today’s shiny, distracting, modern political landscape, where voters are consumers, being sold a nice story about the future a politician offers. Triumphant and ambivalent, funny and dark, No is carefully built from the contradictions and compromises of politics, of selling and being sold.

No opens Friday, April 12, at the Bijou.

NO: Directed by Pablo Larraín. Screenplay by Pedro Peirano, based on the play The Referendum by Antonio Skarmeta. Cinematography, Sergio Armstrong. Editor, Andrea Chignoli. Music, Carlos Cabezas. Starring Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Luis Gnecco and Pascal Montero. Sony Pictures Classics, 2013. R. 118 minutes. Three and a half stars.