After “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem,” his devastating portraits of how the Pinochet regime psychologically brutalized the people of Chile from 1973-90, Chilean helmer Pablo Larrain satisfyingly completes the trilogy with an affirmative victory for democracy in “No.” Tense throughout, even for history-savvy auds, but still rich in the sort of Andean-soil-black humor that made Larrain’s previous work so distinctive, the pic stars Gael Garcia Bernal as an adman who helps the opposition fashion a campaign to get people to vote against keeping Pinochet in power in a 1988 referendum. Result will get plenty of yes votes from arthouse distribs worldwide.
In fact, with the right kind of marketing, “No” has the potential to break out of the usual ghettos that keep Latin American cinema walled off from non-Hispanic territories. The political backdrop has immediate relevance for any nation that is facing or has recently faced a potential regime change (France, the U.S., Russia, most of the Arab world), while the upbeat, pro-underdog ending provides hope that even under the most adverse-seeming conditions, the good guys sometimes win. And with the international success of “Mad Men,” marketing campaigners should think about capitalizing on viewers’ fascination everywhere with portraits of the advertising industry itself, engagingly scrutinized here with a delicious, Matthew Weiner-style eye for period detail.
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Based on Antoino Skarmeta’s legit piece “Referendum,” the screenplay centers around advertising exec Rene Saavedra (Bernal), the son of a prominent Chilean dissident who was sent into exile when Pinochet seized power, which would explain Rene’s Mexican accent. Apparently the Don Draper of his firm, Rene is a whiz kid first seen pitching, with none-too-subtle dramatic irony, a cheesy, cheerful campaign for a soft drink called Free. (The jarring inclusion of a mime artist in the mocked-up commercial evolves into a wry running joke throughout the film.)
Socialist politico Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), an old friend of Rene’s father, persuades Rene to help construct a persuasive 15-minute broadcast arguing for people to vote “no” against Pinochet in an upcoming plebiscite. The spot will be shown just once a day in a graveyard slot, a token concession to free-election fairness from the regime, which otherwise entirely controls the media. The regime itself is under offshore pressure to make some show of democracy after 15 years of military dictatorship.
Many Chileans — especially left-wingers such as Rene’s estranged, activist wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers, “Post Mortem”), with whom he shares custody of young son Simon (Pascal Montero) — have no reason to believe the referendum won’t be rigged in Pinochet’s favor. Indeed, Veronica accuses Rene of effectively collaborating with the regime by participating in the whole charade. Elsewhere, some members of the coalition despise the bland, positive populism of Rene’s proposed campaign strategy, which downplays torture statistics and rhetoric in favor of literal rainbows and happiness.
Meanwhile, Rene’s boss, Lucho Guzman (Larrain’s regular leading man, Alfredo Castro), is recruited by the regime for its own campaign, and he tries to put Rene off working for the “No” coalition by offering him a partnership. Rene refuses, and so even as the two men get on with their day jobs of promoting soap operas and soft drinks together, their moonlight hours are spent plotting to undermine each other’s campaigns.
As such, the pic is perfectly in step with the trilogy’s previous installments, in which the world of politics impinges palpably on the lives of people connected to performing and show business. Here, however debased and manipulative the advertising world is (it’s all a “copy of a copy of a copy,” Veronica says dismissively), it’s nevertheless a degraded form of art that swings the election.
“No” is much less surreal and oneiric than its predecessors, and some of Larrain’s most devout followers will no doubt decry it as a sellout on par with that of its protagonist, but what it loses in arthouse credibility it gains in crossover potential. Result is obviously Larrain’s most ambitious and expensive effort, featuring proper crowd scenes in the riot sequences and obviously abundant coin spent on getting the look just right on every level, from the costumes to the props to the wonderful use of U-matic stock to make everything look of a piece with the sampled archival footage. Pic was lensed in the boxy Academy ratio, furthering the retro vibe.
Ace editing by Andrea Chinogli makes the nearly two-hour running time zip by effortlessly, and perfs, as one has come to expect from Larrain’s work, are immaculate. Bernal has seldom been better than he is here, especially in his penultimate, wrenchingly underplayed scene. For the record, the two men whose real-life stories formed the inspiration for Rene’s character, Jose Manuel Salcedo and Enrique Garcia, appear onscreen in tiny roles as men working for the regime.