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'No' aims to put viewers in the middle of Chilean politics

'No' presents an interesting look at Chilean political drama, but like other historical films, it seems at time to put too happy a face on the proceedings.

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Gael Garcia Bernal (center) stars in 'No.'

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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Pablo Larraín’s “No,” starring Gael García Bernal, is one of those political films that aims to put us in the very eye of the action. It’s about the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that ended the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet 15 years after he seized control of the government in a bloody coup. About a third of the film consists of actual documentary footage; the rest was shot with a U-matic video camera, popular at the time. The result is a bland, washed-out seamlessness. Real and staged footage are often indistinguishable.

This visual strategy makes sense aesthetically, but it’s tough on the eyes – like watching a feature-length, hand-held home movie. What binds the film together, despite this imperfection and many others, is the central idea: Larraín contends, at least for dramatic purposes, that the anti-Pinochet plebiscite was won because of the marketing savvy of Bernal’s René Saavedra, an ad executive, recently returned from exile in Mexico, who is hired to produce TV commercials for the NO faction. (He is apparently a composite of several actual people.)

The 15-minute nightly spots, a concession by the Pinochet regime under international pressure, are aired in the wee hours but nevertheless have a huge popular impact. Fighting resistance from hard-left forces who want him to show images of torture and brutality, Saavedra, whose previous ad triumph was selling soda, creates a sunny campaign featuring a rainbow logo and the slogan “Chile, happiness is on the way.”

Saavedra’s father was a prominent Chilean dissident exiled by Pinochet; his disapproving ex-wife (Antonia Zegers) is a left-wing activist with whom he shares custody of their young son (Pascal Montero). He is coaxed into taking on the NO campaign by an old Socialist friend of his father’s (Luis Gnecco). And yet we are never led to believe that Saavedra is anything but a whiz kid ad man – a Chilean Don Draper. He’s a salesman, not a political firebrand.

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