The ads that felled Pinochet make a fun film

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo



RPL Film Theatre

April 25-28

3 out of 5

Even though No was the first Chilean film ever to compete for an Academy Award, it has plenty of detractors in the homeland — and they’re not just Pinochet nostalgics. There is the impression — among those who opposed the dictator — that the film minimizes the impact of social unrest and gives excessive importance to advertising.

As someone who experienced the events depicted in No, I can tell you that No is in the right. Where marches, strikes, international pressure and armed resistance failed, 15 minutes of advertising for 27 consecutive days succeeded.

Forced by a constitution the dictator himself concocted, in 1988 Pinochet submitted himself to a popular referendum. The alternatives were simple: “Yes”, if you wanted him to continue for eight more years, and “No” if you preferred open elections.

While most of the opposition (correctly) viewed the referendum as a ploy to legitimize the regime, others saw it as an opportunity to beat the tyrant at his own game. Enter René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal), an apathetic ad man who, despite holding several grudges against the regime, has chosen not to act on his hostility.

Saavedra is handpicked to engineer the “No” campaign, particularly the TV spots. Instead of focusing on the regime’s systematic violation of human rights, the advertising whiz goes for a positive spin in order to attract the Chileans as opposed to scare them, using traditional marketing tools. Democracy must be sold as a product, accompanied by a catchy tune and a catchphrase: “Happiness is coming”.

Initial success brings the initially reluctant on board, but one concern remains: Even if “No” wins, will Pinochet acknowledge defeat?

There’s plenty of good material to work with, but No doesn’t take advantage of it. The ending is particularly anticlimactic, given the elements at play. The protagonist’s arc (the listless René rediscovers his ideals) is flimsy at best, no matter how good García Bernal is in this.

The best moments in No belong to the rivalry between René and his boss (Alfredo Castro, the Chilean Robert De Niro), who takes over the “Yes” campaign after an early approach bombs. Beyond their opposing political views, they admire and even look after each other. The inner workings of each group are as absorbing, as they struggle to put their beliefs (and pettiness) aside for the greater good.

Whenever No strays from these topics —

  and it does it often — it becomes dull. René’s family drama is a snooze.

Director Pablo Larraín makes a couple of particularly distracting cosmetic decisions. First, the film is low definition and sports a 4:3 ratio, just as TV in the 80s. Since most movies today are 16:9, No feels boxy and dated, as opposed to the desired effect of bring you back in time. Second, the idea of using the same people who starred in the TV spots 25 years ago may have looked great on paper, but the execution takes you right out of the movie.

There’s a subtler, more radical message hiding behind the quest to overthrow the tyrant: Real change doesn’t come from outside. If Pinochet is gone, how come I’m back doing the same thing  I was during the regime? No brings up the question, but chooses not to respond.