Anyone who’s ever winced at a drivel-filled political ad is in the target audience for “No,” the Oscar nominee from Chile that lost the best foreign film prize to “Amour.”
You can read it many ways: As the story of an apolitical guy who acquires a conscience (or does he?), as a look at a laissez-faire father growing into his responsibilities and maybe reuniting with his politically active wife, or as a cheerfully and subtly rude satire on electorates who make decisions according to meaningless slogans. It’s all of that and more.
We meet René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) at an ad agency meeting in 1988, where he’s unveiling a TV campaign for “Free!” cola, complete with mime, pop singer and vapid slogans. “Chile now thinks of its future,” he tells doubting clients, reminding them he has his finger on the national pulse.
Urrutia (Luis Gnecco), a family friend with leftist leanings, asks René to help with a different kind of campaign. Augusto Pinochet, who has been a military dictator for 15 years, has agreed to a plebiscite to determine whether he should serve eight more. If the people vote yes, he stays; if no, he retires. Each side will be given 15 minutes of advertising per day on state-run television.
Urrutia’s pals reasonably want to include statistics and footage of the countless people Pinochet has jailed, tortured, killed or simply “disappeared” since taking over in a military coup. (Our CIA helped him kick out legally elected Salvador Allende, who ended up dead, in 1973.)
René knows better. “Chile now thinks of its future,” he says cheerfully, plotting a campaign involving – you guessed it – a pop singer, mimes, little girls dancing in green fields, a rainbow backdrop and the slogan “Chile, happiness is coming!”
The disgusted leftists give in to him but find their popularity rising. Meanwhile, the callow René gets in trouble with his right-wing boss (Alfredo Castro), who goes to work for the “Yes” faction. Cops and thugs take an unhealthy interest in the surprised René – isn’t this just another consultancy job? – but his estranged wife (Antonia Zegers) urges him forward.
Director Pablo Larraín puts in just enough history to keep foreigners or Argentineans with short memories up to speed. He clearly thinks Pinochet was a tyrant, but he’s less interested in a history lesson than in examining the way a bovine population makes careless choices. Sometimes they’re helpful choices: Pinochet lost the plebiscite and left office in 1990, after a democratic election. But idiots are dangerous, whichever lever they pull in the voting booth.
Larraín has just as much scorn for the uninvolved René, at least at first. René doesn’t seem to understand what’s at stake for himself, his family or his country. But as he sees the “No” side may prevail, against the odds and in defiance of claims the plebiscite is rigged, he begins to think harder.
You can draw your own conclusions about whether the director and writer Pedro Peirano mean for their theme to be universal; I saw painful parallels to the last U.S. presidential campaign, with mindless clichés mouthed before enormous, waving flags. In my cynical moods, it seems Larraín suggests this is inevitable, and we’d better hope the “good” sloganeers prevail.
You can also decide for yourself how much René changes by the end. As he plots another campaign (for a travel agency, I think), he cheerfully informs his new customers, “Chile now thinks of its future.” Does he really mean to keep selling vacations and elections with the same soulless professionalism? If so, is he any better than the sheep-like voters he herded into an electoral pen?
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