Hotshot ad man René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) pitches three different ads throughout the course of Pablo Larraín’s 1988 Chile-set “No,” and for each he has the same opening line: “What you’re going to see now is in line with the current social context. We believe that the country is prepared for communication of this nature.” One of the pitches is for a cola called “Free!,” one is for a reality TV show where beautiful women watch a bachelor swoop down in a helicopter, and one is for the landmark “No” campaign that would ultimately vote out Chile’s 15-year dictator General Augusto Pinochet, despite a seemingly rigged plebiscite. As they say on "Sesame Street," one of these things is not like the others.
Yet René approaches the “No” campaign in the same fashion that he would a soft drink and, for the majority of the film, with the same cool detachment that one might have toward carbonated liquids. Recently returned from exile in Mexico, the fictional René is a tried-and-true product junkie with less interest in Chile’s political climate than in the bottom line: winning customers. As uncomfortable as that sounds when dealing with people’s civic freedoms, and respecting the multitudes either dead or tortured under Pinochet’s rule, winning is what the democrats behind the “No” campaign need. It’s also what they have no idea how to pull off.
The “No” and “Yes” parties are each given 15 minutes of TV advertising for 27 days leading up to the election. Many people on the “No” team want to reflect the gravity of what is happening through raw footage and testimony, while René insists that a message of happiness is the way to go: a catchy jingle, a rainbow-bright logo, and music video-style montages of people picnicking, dancing and singing, with an errant mime thrown in for good measure. Meanwhile, the characters circling René represent a spectrum. His scrappy ex (Antonia Zegers) is a front-line protester, his duplicitous advertising boss (Alfredo Castro) is in bed with the “Yes” party, and his “No” recruiter (Luis Gnecco) is negotiating the bruised egos within the campaign and the increasingly dicey situation closing in on it.
“No” is shot on U-Matic, a sort of proto-VHS, and has the look of a consumer-grade camcorder from the 1980s. The cinematography is purposefully ugly, tinged with the sickly yellow pallor of lo-fi video equipment. As a result, it blends seamlessly with the historical footage used in the film, which Larraín has said comprises roughly 30 percent of the images. Particularly impressive is a sequence late in the film, when René and his son (Pascal Montero) are caught in the crosshairs of a “No” rally-turned-police demonstration. As shots of brutality and chaos jiggle with handheld anxiety on the screen, we occasionally see Bernal in the frame and take mental note: “Aha! That image has been reenacted or superimposed.”
Indeed, the presence of a beautiful international celebrity in a film made to look so authentically unappealing is surreal. “No” admirably hovers just out of grasp; it is painstakingly of a certain time and place, but also beyond it. The character of René, with his rat tail and skateboard, is much like a post-Millennial hipster. His general indifference to politics, his preference for good living covered by a thin fuck-the-man attitude, and his attraction to radicalism without any real commitment to it struck me as very contemporary.
As René’s catch-all ad pitch suggests, the link between pop culture and politics is potent. This theme is partly what’s getting the film into trouble in Chile. Some pivotal players in the real “No” campaign argue that the film credits the success of a grass-roots movement solely to a “Mad Men”-style savior with a cool idea. Of course, it’s a film — Larraín is allowed to pick and choose the focus. Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “No” can’t and shouldn’t make everyone happy. But to avoid triviality, it must have heart. And in one of the final shots, as René walks through rejoicing streets holding his son, his own detached heart melts, and the painful beauty of what is happening — what happened in 1988 Chile — is real.
"No," which is nominated for the foreign Oscar, hits theaters in New York and Los Angeles on February 15 via Sony Pictures Classics. Our TOH! interview with Larraín and Bernal is here.