In 1988 Chile held a referendum as to whether Pinochet could extend his rule for a further eight years. Rene, a young advertising executive is drafted in to support the No campaign, a campaign that, if successful, would ensure that 16 and a half years of military rule in Chile would come to an end. Both sides of the debate are given 15 minutes on national TV to campaign, and it is not long before the debate gets dirty.
No is made in such a way that it looks like a TV show from the 1980s – the lights flare, and the entire production just looks low quality, like an overly lit soap opera. Pinochet looms over proceedings like a spectre of oppression; we only see him on screen in stock images and footage, instead, this film focuses on the struggle faced by those opposing him.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene, an advertising executive recently returned to Chile from exile. His family members have suffered and disappeared during his absence, and this forms the basis for his reluctance to get involved with politics. It is not long before he caves and becomes one of the main creative forces behind the No campaign. Garcia Bernal plays Rene as quiet and cautious, the weight of responsibility bears down on him, as he knows the consequences of failure. Garcia Bernal garnered international acclaim for his portrayal of a young Che Guevara in The Motorcycle Diaries, but Rene is far emoved from the young Guevara. He is reluctant to get involved with politics, is not filled with youthful optimism, in fact the opposite; Rene – a man with a young son and a former partner who has been detained – he has seen the ugly side of conflict and this is evident in his every move.
The debate divides Chile, and as the No campaign rely on light and fun methods to convey their message, the Yes campaign mock their broadcasts, trash their arguments and intimidate those involved. Rene and his boss at the advertising firm are on opposite sides of the campaign, and through their intimate and personal discussions – and those between Rene and the mother of his son – the audience learns how deep feelings on this issue run. The film depicts a seemingly small event in history, but one that changed the course of Chilean history. The threat of Pinochet’s retaliation looms large; we constantly see footage from ugly protests against the dictator and there is no doubt that this fate would befall Rene and his friends if they should fail.
The choice to make this campaign into a feature length film is an interesting one. As mentioned, it is a fairly small event – the campaign for a referendum – yet this has a bigger impact on Chile than any of the violent protests that have gone before. The film is framed through the No campaign and their struggle to unite the old and the young of the country, so this is hardly an unbiased view. The Yes campaign is portrayed as stubborn and cruel, and there is no doubt in the audience’s minds who should win this debate.
Director Pablo Larraín has created a film that deals with politics but is not overly political. No focuses on the small story of the ‘outsider’ who is drawn into the debate, but it is through this that the audience gets a sense of the bigger picture. The divide between the people in the film represents the divide between the people of Chile and in this way, the micro represents the macro.
In all, No is an interesting look at the turning point of Chilean politics and history; perhaps the most fascinating fact is that a dictator was deposed with a surprising lack of violence. No is a non-political film about politics and a reluctant participant in the debate that would eventually unseat Pinochet. Gael Garcia Bernal gives a studied and quiet performance that belies the reservations that come with fighting oppression. No is exactly the kind of film that is suited to Director’s Fornight at Cannes; a small story with big heart and repercussions that is funny, warm and human.