This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the Cannes Film Festival Directors' Fortnight in 2012.
"No" is exactly the kind of film you hope to stumble across — a film that hadn't been on your radar until buzz from too many quarters too diverse to be ignored made you seek it out, discovering a film that's extraordinarily well-made, superbly acted, funny, human, warm, principled and, yes, as enthrallingly entertaining as it is fiercely moral and intelligent. Set in Chile in 1988, "No" stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Réne, a "creative" at an ad agency. At the start of the film, he's explaining to a group of clients how this spot he's about to show them represents the new, young feeling of Chile, and how it's in tune with the youth of that country and their needs. And then he rolls … a soda commercial, full of shoulderpad-wearing rockers, exultant crowds of youth and a mime.
And Réne doesn't know it, but he's on the verge of his biggest challenge ever. A smoothie young enough to skateboard to work but experienced enough to have ruined his marriage to Verónica (Antónia Zegers), Réne is approached with an unusual thing to sell … that isn't a thing at all. After 15 years of military rule under Pinochet, and responding to global pressure, Chile is going to have a plebiscite to continue, or end, the dictatorial era of rule that began with a bloody coup d'etat lead by the General-turned-President in 1973. And Réne is asked to run the campaign for the "No" side … even as his privileged, patrician boss Lucho (Alfredo Castro) advises Pinochet's inner circle. The fact is, as one of the figureheads of the "No" movement explains to Réne, people afraid of communism, of change, of chaos might very well vote to keep Pinochet and his military junta in power, despite killing thousands, torturing thousands more and detaining tens of thousands, like Verónica, illegally. For now, for most Chileans, the trains run on time, and Pinochet's excesses don't seem to matter to those who would keep the status quo. Unless Réne and his team can change their minds.
We often talk about the marketplace of ideas, but that phrase also implies that ideas can, regardless of their actual worth, occasionally use a little marketing. Most of the time advertising is about selling people something they don't need. How can you sell them something that they should want? "No" isn't afraid to make fun of advertising — one soda exec asks early on, "Why is there a fucking mime in my commercial?", proving that some things are universal — and it also precisely nails the '80s tone of the ads recreated for the film, mingled in with actual ads and footage from the day.
Each side will have 15 minutes on-air — and only 15 — provided at no cost on every network every night in the 27 days leading up to the vote — and so Réne has to come up with hard sells with a soft touch in a brief amount of time. (It should also be noted that while Pinochet was a brutal dictator who seized power through a coup d'etat, some of his ideas on running an election make a lot more sense than America's primary season and election financing.) At one point, Verónica rails at Réne for his ads: "You've got six-foot blond people in the 'No' ad! Are these Chileans? Where did you get them, Denmark? Who are these assholes?" And he tries to do better, appealing through the positive and the principled instead of just hollow, "hopeful" clichés, realizing that you can't sell Democracy like it's soda.
If "No" were just a look at advertising used for the public good, or simply recreated the pop and political culture of a time both far and near (at one point, Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss plug for the "No" side; the sweater-vests, headbands and bad Video Toaster edits and dissolves of the recreated ads are perfect) it would be an impressive feat. But Bernal's performance — as Réne slowly becomes conscious, then becomes terrified and finally realizes that he's been a vital part of something important, carrying his son through the streets as his nation changes — is superb, and gives the film a human heart.
There's paranoia here, and the risk of brutal violence from the powers-that-be, but it's handled with the same light yet threatening touch as similar moments in "The Insider." There aren't mustache-twirling bad guys after our ad men, just phone calls in the night and cars parked nearby that suspiciously start up as you get in your vehicle. Larrain's matter-of-fact approach to the realities of Chile under Pinochet, when what you wanted to buy was in the shops but you couldn't vote, is insidiously creepy, and one of the high notes of the film is watching Bernal slowly realize that his privileged life comes at a price of complicity he's paid bit by bit for years without thinking.
Superbly shot, full of human characters (Castro's scenes are superlative, even sympathetic, as he talks with the power-brokers of the regime about advertising's realities), depicting a galvanizing true story while also showing us the hearts and lives of the people on both sides of the vote, "No" is one of the breakout films of Cannes. As wonderful as it was to find it here, the only thing to regret is that it isn't in the main competition where it deserves to be. It would be one thing if "No" merely showed how 30-second TV ads can change people's minds; what makes it a masterwork is how it shows how once, in one place and at one time, 30-second TV ads changed people's worlds, and the world, and for the better. [A]