Almost a miniature genre, the factually challenged but dramatically winning moment-in-history drama comes in Chilean form this week.
The film is called “No,” and like “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” this Oscar nominee depicts the strategies and dramatizes the execution of a mission of historical importance. The results are intelligent, entertaining and, credibility imperfections notwithstanding, nicely edifying.
Directed by Pablo Larrain (“Tony Manero”) from a screenplay by Pedro Peirano (adapting a play by Antonio Skarmeta), the film revisits the 1988 referendum in which Chilean voters decided whether dictator Augusto Pinochet should stay or go. During Pinochet’s 15 years in power, thousands of Chileans were killed or “disappeared.”
Beating what some deemed impossible odds, no-on-Pinochet votes outnumbered yes votes. A smart advertising campaign, this movie’s primary subject, has been credited.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays the fictional Rene Saavedra, a young advertising executive with a skateboard and an easy charm. Introduced in a tone-setting passage in which he’s discussing a soda-pop ad as if discoursing on the Chilean condition immortal, Rene accepts a consultant job on the No campaign.
This displeases Rene’s conservative boss (Alfredo Castro), who’s with the Yes camp, and Rene’s estranged leftist-activist wife (Antonia Zegers), who considers the election a farce.
Rene clashes with members of the No coalition, who, viewing their campaign as unwinnable, want to use their allotted TV time to raise awareness of Pinochet’s crimes.
Rene, however, approaches the referendum as something to sell. Believing that images of happiness, not torture, are what’s needed, he creates a rosy commercial, complete with a rainbow and a jingle.
As the No movement gains steam, the Yes team takes threatening action against Rene and company. Suspense occurs.
The film isn’t without problems. Domestic minidramas in which Rene hopes to reconcile with his wife, with whom he has a young son, feel contrived. The depiction of the ad campaign as the sole force responsible for the No victory is hard to buy.
But overall, the movie succeeds as a David-and-Goliath drama, a campaign procedural, a dip into Chilean history, and a light and loopy look at the power of advertising.
Larrain gets the tone right. He treats Rene’s smiling-face approach to ridding Chile of its dictatorship with a fitting dark-comic tinge.
He scores points by showing how a picture of happiness, even when insipid, gets a rise from people. He wisely presents Rene not as a visionary hero, but as a complacent Chilean rising to a terrific challenge.
Bernal’s blend of movie-star charisma and down-to-earth accessibility prove ideal for Rene.
Sunshine and cynicism coexist perfectly at closure time. This may sound cornier than one of Rene’s advertising phrases, but “No” merits yes-list status.