In 1988, fifteen years into his reign as President of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet agreed to allow the people of his nation to hold a national referendum, leaving it up to them to determine whether or not they wanted him to remain as their leader for another eight years. On the surface, this might have seemed like a turn toward democracy for a man who came to power as a result of a military coup and who ruled his nation with an iron fist - sending many dissidents to prison and to their deaths - but many who were opposed to him eyed the elections with a great deal of skepticism and distrust, believing that the vote would be rigged and that his preordained victory would only further strengthen his grip on power and, simultaneously, enhance his image in the eyes of the world.
But hold the election the nation did, and it is against this backdrop that the movie "No" is set. Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Rene Saavedra, a divorced advertising executive who lives a profitable and comfortable life with his young son, Simon. Hitherto, he has remained largely apolitical in a country where to voice an opinion on the government or its leaders can put one's own life and freedom in jeopardy (his ex is herself a leftist activist who often finds herself abused and imprisoned for her actions). But when the plebiscite is announced, Rene, somewhat hesitantly at first, agrees to work for the No Campaign, bringing his expertise on advertising for the first time into the realm of politics.
While most of the people involved in the campaign want to take this opportunity to expose the horrors of the regime through a hard-hitting series of 15-minute ads, Rene argues instead for a more upbeat, feel-good approach on the theory that people are more likely to respond positively to something that makes them feel happy than something that makes them feel outraged or depressed. The result is a series of TV spots so impossibly bland and innocuous - filled with deliriously happy performers dancing and singing a jingle - that they might as well be selling toothpaste. And I guess that's one of the points of "No" - that in a consumer-conscious society even freedom and democracy eventually become commodities like everything else and can be sold as such.
Written by Pedro Peirano and directed by Pablo Larrain, "No" is of more interest as a historical and social document than as a drama, since its characters remain largely superficial throughout. And while the narrative earns points for resisting the temptation to over-dramatize an already highly volatile situation, the perhaps inevitable price of that restraint is a picture that actually feels UNDER-dramatized at times. However, the bravery of these individuals in the face of some obvious attempts at intimidation does shine through. In order to more seamlessly blend the action of the story with actual archival footage from the era in which it`s set, the movie has been given a deliberately grainy, over-lit appearance by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong that helps to heighten its authenticity.
Not quite as emotionally powerful as one might wish it to be, "No" is, nevertheless, a true-life tale of a national uprising well worth paying heed to.