“No” is the first Chilean film to be nominated for a foreign language Oscar (it lost to “Amour”), and in a way it could be seen as Chile’s very own “Argo”: a movie that illuminates events of a generation ago by telling a side of the story most people never knew. If there are fewer white-knuckle showdowns than in a Hollywood movie, the trade-off is a cool, ironic intelligence that ripples off the screen and up the years to where we live.
In 1988, the Chilean dictatorship held a national referendum, under international pressure, on whether General Augusto Pinochet should continue in power for another eight years. The people got to vote — “Si” or “No” — after a month of campaigning by the ruling party and a coalition of opponents. Each group got 15 minutes a night on national TV to state its case.
After a decade and a half of a murderous police state, no one expected a fair vote, and in the early parts of “No” you can feel defeatism lying across the country like a lead blanket. Rene Saavedra (Gabriel Garcia Bernal) is a hip, young advertising executive — he gets to work on a skateboard — whom we first see pitching a new soda as “the future of Chile.” His father was a famous activist, and his estranged wife (Antonia Zegers) is a freedom fighter with the jail time and bruises to prove it. Rene, by contrast, can’t be bothered. Why try to change something that can’t be changed?
The movie tells the story of how Saavedra was convinced by a canny opposition politician (Luis Gnecco) to make ads for the “No” campaign, and how those ads — to the distress of many on the left — sold the country on a bouncy, upbeat promise of the future rather than a horror movie of the past. Like “Argo,” “No” is about altering grim reality through the manufacture of benign images, but it’s more aware of the double-edged nature of the trick. And instead of six hostages being rescued, it’s an entire country.
The “No” campaign ads turn out, with all irony intact, to be chirpily positive, a bland, infectious display of good times just around the corner. We see picnics and rainbows and happy couples; this being the ’80s, we get a mime. Saavedra’s political advisers urge him to come up with an anthem; instead, he looks for a jingle. (The one he finds is ridiculously catchy; a week after seeing the movie, I’m still ready to vote “No.”)
He’s selling democracy the way the Mad Men sold Lucky Strikes in the 1950s, with Pavlovian images of bliss and as few particulars as possible. Through his own shallowness, Saavedra stumbles on a crucial insight: Where negative campaigning may work against individuals, on the larger issues — and especially at moments of great social change — people just want to feel hope. Sound familiar?
“No” is a comedy, but of a dangerous sort. Its eyes are open and the laughs tend to stick in your throat. There are late-night threats against Rene and his young son (Pascal Montero). When his editing team realizes the police are waiting outside, the members fan out into the street holding videotape cases, only one of which holds that night’s “No” ad. Rene’s right-wing boss (Alfredo Castro) is developing ads for the “Si” camp; the two argue bitterly over politics before going into client meetings to pitch a soap opera campaign together. An invisible fist hovers over everyone’s head.
On a production level, “No” is a beguiling house of mirrors. Director Pablo Larraín, for whom this movie caps a trilogy of incisive works about life under Pinochet (2008’s “Tony Manero” and 2010’s “Post-Mortem” are the others), shoots his tale on the U-Matic video equipment in use during the 1980s; the resulting visuals have the scuzzy, phosphorescent quality of images that just crawled out of the time capsule. He casts newscasters and politicians of the era as themselves, weaves genuine news footage with restaged bits, and, for an outsider, it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s artifact and what’s fabrication. In Chile, not surprisingly, “No” has been the subject of the same sort of debate about accuracy and artistic license as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo.”
Most of that criticism has come from the left, and it’s the leftist politicians in the film who initially come off as humorless Debbie Downers — who just don’t get that their message of righteous martyrdom won’t sell. But “No” is slyer than it seems, and it asks a viewer to wonder what exactly is getting lost in Rene’s sunny vision — what he’s asking people to buy into and what he’s asking them to forget. Larraín wants us to see, in this case at least, that the ends justified the means. But he also wants us to know that when it was all over, Rene Saavedra went right back to selling soap.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.