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MOVIE REVIEW: ‘No’ Film sums up beginning of end of dictator

"No" casts a darkly comic eye at an ad campaign that helped unseat Chile's entrenched military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. In 1988, Chile's government conducted a referendum on Pinochet's rule as means of placating allies and trading partners who were agitating for democratic change in the South American country. A "yes" vote meant eight more years of dictatorship; "no" meant multi-party elections.

To publicize the election, the government allotted 15 minutes a day of television time to the opposition for the four-week run-up to the vote. The advertising time was to be shared by a coalition of 17 political parties, ranging from moderate to radical, lumped together as "the opposition." The ads would run consecutively at midnight, to be followed by a block of ads from the government. This was the only time the opposition had to get their messages out over the airwaves because of strict rules governing the TV industry.

Advertising man Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) is thrust into this simmering electoral catastrophe by an old family friend who just happens to be an opposition leader. Rene only recently returned to Chile from exile, and isn't eager to take his place in the political struggle. In fact, he's expropriated the language of radical politics for use with clients of his ad agency, telling a meeting of soda marketers that a proposed new ad is, "in line with the current social context," and that "the country is prepared for a communication of this nature." He lives in a suburban house with his young son, and his level of political involvement runs to occasionally rescuing his activist ex-wife from the clutches of the police.

The compromises Rene has made to ensure himself a prosperous place in Chile's growing consumer economy are precisely what suit him to the task of crafting an anti-Pinochet message for a fractious rabble of exiled politicians, university radicals, and aging leftists. He's cool to the point of detachment, and doesn't get riled by criticism. The angriest he gets is when a colleague upsets him with yet another ideological denunciation of consumerism. The funniest scene in the movie features Rene showing off a cutesy, optimistic ad, complete with a catchy jingle and rainbows, to his skeptical clients. They're puzzled and appalled that he would try to overthrow the Pinochet regime with something resembling a cola ad.

The head of Rene's agency, Lucho Guzman, is a supporter of Pinochet, and is advising the team making the "yes" ads for the election. The government, quite reasonably, doesn't initially envision a big threat from the opposition. Lucho (Alfredo Castro) senses trouble, and helps direct the regime's efforts to harass and intimidate the "no" creative team. Somewhat bizarrely, Rene and Lucho keep up their professional relationship, shooting ads and pitching accounts throughout.

While the film distorts the literal history of the plebiscite, using composite characters and focusing on a small corner of the effort to oust Pinochet, the movie's look and feel place it squarely in its time. Director Pablo Larrain shot "No" on a vintage U-matic video camera, in order to seamlessly interweave the film with period footage. There are some visual drawbacks to this approach. The video doesn't handle glare well, and occasionally sunlight will burst across a frame, giving "No" a cheap, Instamatic feel. But this is a small problem when set against the experience of watching a historical fiction that looks like a lost artifact of its own time.

★★★

TITLE: "No" (in Spanish with English subtitles)

CREDITS: Directed by Pablo Larrain. Screenplay by Pedro Peirano. Based on the stage play by Antonio Skarmeta

RATING: R

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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