Pablo Larrain, director
Pedro Peirano, script based on the play El Plebiscito by Antonio Skarmeta
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal (Rene), Alfredo Castro (Lucho), Luis Gnecco (Jose Tomas Urrutia), Antonia Zegers (Veronica), Marcial Tagle (Costa)
This drama about the Chilean plebiscite in 1988, which restored democracy to the country after 15 years, won the Art Cinema award at the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. It went on to be the first Chilean film nominated for the best Foreign Film at the Oscars.
Political thriller; melodrama focusing on advertising; historical docu-drama
Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet succumbed to international pressure to hold a plebiscite on his regime in 1988. It had been 15 years since General Pinochet and his right wing collaborators had overthrown the democratically elected government of the Socialist Salvador Allende, killing him and eventually many of his colleagues and friends while driving many others into exile. Pinochet and his advisers assumed that the democratic opposition to his reign was scattered and demoralized and wouldn’t be able to mount a credible campaign against him. As a sop to his liberal foreign allies, especially the US, Pinochet even allowed the opposition to run 27 TV broadcasts, 15 minutes each, for the final month of the plebiscite.
No is about the shockingly successful campaign mounted by a coalition of Chilean liberals, centrists and radicals, which unseated Pinochet and his cohorts. Rene (Gael Garcia Bernal), a fictional construct, is a brilliant ad guy, who decides to work for the “no” vote out of loyalty to his radical father and, to some extent, admiration for his activist estranged wife, Veronica. Creating a somewhat cheesy campaign using a rainbow logo, music, dancing and slogans about “hope is just around the corner,” Rene uses optimism and fun as his tools instead of a hard-hitting approach espoused by some of the coalition’s extreme left-wing.
While combating attacks of being superficial mounted by some of his political colleagues, Rene also has to deal with harassment from his conservative boss Lucho and increasingly severe threats from Pinochet’s police and military. In the end, the vote happens—and this is hardly a spoiler alert—the democratic left “No” alliance wins the day.
Really, it’s one performance that counts. Gael Garcia Bernal is charismatic as Rene, getting the audience into the head of a surprisingly complex man, who knows how to use the media to carry an important political message through techniques suited to a Coke commercial.
The creative team
Director Pablo Larrain and scriptwriter Pedro Peirano have done a good job at evoking the political scene in late ‘80s Chile. It’s difficult to make politics exciting—and even harder to get an audience to grasp the intricacies of a campaign. The War Room, D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ feature doc on the strategies used in the first Clinton election is a rare instance of a political tale that attracted critical and popular acclaim. Although No simplifies the campaign that sunk Pinochet—there was much union organizing going on, for example—it certainly benefitted from the storytelling nous of Larrain and his team.
No is that rare item, a political feel-good film. There are many flaws in this drama, ranging from poor production values to an over-simplification of the media campaign and the political process. Still, it is worthwhile and instructive to see. And learn.