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How an advertiser toppled a dictator

No (M). Director: Pablo Larraín. Starring: Gael García Bernal, Antonia Zegers. 117 minutes

This gloriously low-fi Chilean historical drama must surely have been a frontrunner in a strong field contending for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars. Michael Haneke's sublime Amour deservedly won that gong, but No's credentials as a formally distinctive, historically fascinating, sharply satirical and downright funny and entertaining film are nonetheless beyond question.

The action takes place in 1988 as the people of Chile prepare for a plebiscite that will ask them to vote 'Yes' or 'No' to allowing the already 15-year dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to continue for another eight years. Pinochet's supporters are, with good reason, banking that the populace's fear of the regime and willingness to maintain the status quo will ensure a straightforward victory for the 'Yes' vote.

Part of their concession to the democratic process is to allow each campaign an equal portion of television advertising, to be broadcast each evening across all television networks. Proponents of the 'No' campaign can ostensibly use these 15-minute windows to disseminate whatever message they please (though some interference proves to be inevitable). Their instinct is to use the time to point to the brutalities of Pinochet's rule.

Enter brash young advertising executive René Saavedra (Bernal). The son of a prominent socialist though himself somewhat politically apathetic, René is dubious about the prospects of a campaign that focuses on finger pointing and browbeating. His rusted-on socialist colleagues are at first aghast but gradually persuaded by his conviction that rather than wallowing in negativity, they should be selling optimism.

He devises a campaign, complete with catchy jingle, around the promise of 'happiness'. The film follows these schmaltzy but undeniably stirring advertisements from conception to production to broadcast. The fact that advertising is an essentially cynical tool, which is here being used to manipulate the hearts and minds of an oppressed people, sits in tension with the undeniable rightness of the campaign's end goal.

No was shot on analog videotape, allowing the footage that was filmed in the modern day to be cut seamlessly with archival news footage and with the commercials themselves. As a result the entire film looks like it might have been broadcast on Chilean TV in 1988. To experience this in a 21st century cinema is a surreal and rewarding experience that heightens the film's palpable authenticity.

René is the hero of the film, whose growth comes, if not through politicisation, then through a growing appreciation of the historical moment in which he has become a key player. The film gives considerable attention to his relationship with his estranged, activist wife Verónica (Zegers), whose radicalism and skepticism regarding working with the system in order to change it, tests and expands him. 

No's director, Larraín, is in fact the son of conservative politicians, though he himself is a vocal critic of the Pinochet years and of the right in general, especially the regime's impact on culture. 'Chile found itself unable to express itself artistically for nearly 20 years,' he has said. It is both fitting and unsurprising then that the hero of his film should be an artist whose creative drive proves to be the ultimate foil to a regime's brutal politics.

Tim Kroenert headshotTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, No, Chile, Pinochet, Gael García Bernal



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