In 1988 Pablo Larrain and Pedro Peirano – Chilean director and writer of No, the winner of the prestigious Director’s Fortnight prize at Cannes last year – were twelve and sixteen years old. Under international pressure to legitimise the Presidency of General Augusto Pinochet, the Chilean government staged a referendum: yes, or no, to another eight years under his globally condemned military regime. The government and the opposition were given 15 minutes on air every day for 27 days to convince the Chilean people to vote yes or no.
The result was arguably the most important ad campaign in Latin American history, documented in this clever, witty and evocative film. Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is an exile returned to Santiago, where connections have propelled him above the brittle violence of 1980s Chile. As an advertising agent head-hunted by the “No” campaign, he is pulled deep into a murkier world of political wrangling, censorship, and the ever-present threat of detention and disappearance at the hands of the regime. The film is entirely shot on the old-fashioned three-strip video used in the ‘80s, lending an authenticity and tangibility to the growing feeling of threat, which becomes slowly evident through over-exposed light and shaky zooms. Couched in the music and humour of a deliberately upbeat ad campaign, the violence is chilling.
It has been nine years since his much-lauded turn as the iconic Ernesto Guevara, and Gael Garcia Bernal has aged, though not enough to lose the wide-eyed sincerity that gave credence to his political fervour in The Motorcycle Diaries. In No, however, he plays a different sort of hero. Bernal gives an assured performance that is the axis of the film. Here, he is an older, more cynical, less gauche revolutionary, but still conveys a credible earnestness while deftly handling the lighter moments of the film.
The film begins and ends with Saavedra giving almost identical sales pitches, a reminder that this is a film about the world of advertising as much as it is a film about Chile. There is welcome levity in the struggle to fashion democracy into a sellable product, and there were frequent laughs throughout the cinema. The slick world of advertising, however, is uneasily married to the grim reality of disappearances, tortures and executions under Pinochet. This maintains a taut atmosphere, but also serves as a wry reminder of the power of the media and its ability to distort the truth.
Despite the success of the “No” campaign in ousting Pinochet in 1988, the film ends not with triumph, but with a sense of things continuing without much change. Maria Eugenia Bravo, former Chilean prisoner and exile, believes that indeed, today’s Chile is little improved. Speaking at a Q&A session at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, she points out that the constitution is still as it was under the General, and says that Chile is a country “still divided.” A professor at the University of Chile until her detention, subsequent torture, and escape to the UK, Bravo supports Amnesty International’s campaign to change laws that grant impunity to perpetrators of human rights abuses under the Pinochet regime. Although she sees the film as “a real success for the Chilean people”, she points out that “many are still waiting for justice”. Up for a Best Foreign Film gong at this year’s Academy Awards, No could well inaugurate the exploration of Chile’s difficult past.