"No" is a Chilean drama about the 1988 election by which Chilean voters got to decide whether to retain or dismiss the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It was a yes or no vote -- or "Si" or "No." The film is a semi-fictional account of the "No" campaign, from its inception through the election.
At center is the Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, in the composite role of Rene, a slick advertising man whose crucial insight is that the "No" campaign needs to be positive. For the first time ever, the Pinochet government is allowing for opposition advertising -- 15 minutes every night for almost four weeks -- and the impulse of every political dissident is to present a litany of the regime's horrors. But Rene insists on a future-based, upbeat campaign, associating the "No" vote with things like youth, rebellion and happiness. He wants to sell "No" the way he might sell a new soft drink.
"No" has some of the advantages of a documentary, in that it contains many of the actual commercials that were used in 1988, both "Si" and "No." The late 1980s was still pre-digital, so the blurred graininess makes the vintage of these advertisements apparent. The drama is just an added benefit, but it never quite rises to the level of compelling, and as a result, the movie loses a certain propulsion, here and there. Still, it always retains a level of interest, especially for those of us who don't remember -- or aren't old enough to remember -- which side won.
In Chile, the dilemma for voters opposed to the regime was that they didn't know whether they should even vote in the first place. It was assumed that Pinochet would fix the election, so that the act of voting would be akin to participating in a fraud. The challenge was to convince people that change was possible and that they should vote; hence, the need for some positive uplift in the opposition's advertising.
Bernal is quite good as the young media specialist -- it's always surprising to see how strong a presence he is in his Spanish-language films and how he all-but disappears in his American films. Is it a matter of the roles or the language? The jury is still out.
Between the lines of this Oscar nominee for best foreign film is a sophisticated understanding of the actual choice Chile faced in 1988. Though it's pretty clear that life under a repressive military dictatorship was the worst alternative, "No" has a healthy cynicism about the future the other side was offering, too. The soft-drink-style advertising was just the hint of it. What follows repression usually isn't a golden age, but a time for embracing trivia, for people to relax and concentrate and all that is silly. And why shouldn't they? They've earned the right.
"No" is rated R for violence, oppression, language.
NO (R). Directed by Pablo Larrain; written by Pedro Peirano, based on the play "The Referendum" by Antonio Skarmeta; produced by Juan de Dios Larrain and Daniel Dreifuss. A by Sony Pictures Classics release. In Spanish, with English subtitles. At Triplex Cinema (Great Barrington). 1 hour 50 minutes
Rene Saavedra Gael Garcia Bernal
Lucho Guzman Alfredo Castro
Veronica Caravajal Antonia Zegers
Urrutia Luis Gnecco
Costa Marcial Tagle
Arancibia Nestor Cantillana
Minister Jaime Vadell
Simon Pascal Montero