NO. Starring Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, and Antonia Zegers. Directed by Pablo Larrain. Rated M (Coarse language and mature themes). 117 min.

This is a subtitled Chilean film about resistance to oppression under the Pinochet regime. The film is based loosely on an unpublished play, “El Plebiscito”, written by Antonio Skarmeta, and the movie was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in the 2013 Academy Awards.

The Military Dictator, Augusto Pinochet, called for a referendum in 1988 to legitimize his remaining in power. The opposition marshalled resources and talked a young advertising executive, Rene Saavedra (Gale Garcia Bernal) to spearhead its campaign to stop Pinochet regaining control for another term. The results of the referendum stemmed the tide of the anti-democracy forces in Chile, and spelt the end of Pinochet’s autocratic rule. Rene used promotional material skilfully to encourage the Chilean public to vote “No” to the proposition that Pinochet would lead them again.

The drama is heightened by the fact that the head of Rene’s advertising firm, Luis Guzman (Alfredo Castro), was responsible for the “Yes” campaign. The campaign itself consisted of 27 nights of advertisements on television, where each side was given 15 minutes to present its point of view. In the film, we see actual news footage of the aggression of the Chilean police towards opposing groups, but the television ads on the “No” side talked to the people in a very different way.

Rene decided to market the slogan: “Chile, happiness is on its way”. His strategies looked politically empty, but they had enormous appeal. He avoided angry images entirely, and opted for what people wanted to hear - happiness with “zero more years” for Pinochet. Behind the appeal of the ads, however, there were effective political messages communicated powerfully.

Several themes run through the movie. First, the film is a fascinating political record of how the tide turned in the 1988 election against Pinochet, and it records the history of events in detail. Further, it shows the appalling tactics that were used by the opposition. Also, behind the politics, there is the human drama of the participants who were actually involved. At the time, Rene was separated from his wife, Veronica (Antonia Zegers), who was opposed vehemently to the plebiscite, but who believed passionately that the people should be presented with a carefully orchestrated campaign. To her, and to others, Rene’s marketing-inspired, ideological tactics were ridiculous. Paying attention to all three themes, this is a film about the thin line that occurs between politics, personal involvement in them, intelligent marketing, and media-propaganda.

After its release, the film met with a hostile reception in Chile. Its detractors argued that the movie oversimplified the “No” campaign with its focus on slogans and jingles. Undoubtedly, the film condenses and simplifies complicated events, but the film presents an unusual account of what was thought to be an un-winnable election. Provocatively, the Director of the movie, Pablo Larrain, claims intriguingly that his film is a fictional account and “is not the official version of anything”.

This is a film that offers a fascinating perspective of what was, and might have been. On the technical side, the film-production is made to look tired, grainy and scratchy, and this serves powerfully to enhance the authentic look of the film, and the intended similarity between archival footage and real-life drama.

The film is clever enough to take its humour seriously, and Gael Garcia Bernal is wonderful as Rene. The movie taps very intelligently into the debate about how far a movie can go in blending fact and fiction creatively to dramatize highly charged, political events. In doing that, this rich and rewarding film takes the viewer philosophically on a morally-uplifting journey deep inside the psychology of a country’s fear.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Rialto Distribution.

Out April 18th 2013.

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