Everyone knows the revolution will not be televised – but that’s not to say a great TV ad campaign can’t help plant the seeds and sell dissent to the masses. That’s the basis of Pablo Larraín’s No, which was the standout entry of the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes earlier this year, and the closest thing to a masterpiece I saw at the festival. (The film’s title, meanwhile, turned Cannes conversations into Abbott and Costello routines: ‘What’s your favourite movie so far?’ ‘No.’ ‘Why won’t you tell me?’ ‘I just did: No!’ ‘Tell me already!’)
This, the third part of the Chilean filmmaker’s unnamed trilogy about the Pinochet era, is a based-on-a-true-story drama about the 1988 referendum that gave people the chance to vote El General out of office. Citizens had two choices: marking ‘Yes’ on their ballot papers essentially equaled a vote for the continuation of the dictatorship, while ‘No’ was a signal that Chileans were ready for democracy. Despite the fact that Pinochet controlled the media, each side received 15 minutes of television airtime for a month leading up to the 25 August election.
Enter René (Gael García Bernal), a hotshot advertising-agency pitchman who specialises in high-energy commercials featuring synthesisers, young protagonists and, inexplicably, lots of mimes. A Communist friend convinces him to bring his skills to the No campaign, while his pro-Pinochet boss (Larraín regular Alfredo Castro) starts contributing to the Yes team’s spots.
While one side tries to give the despot a makeover as the American dream instead of the Latin American nightmare, the other uses a rainbow logo and pop savvy to sell the notion of freedom as the hottest new product. Attack ads and smear campaigns soon start appearing (as do actual physical attacks on the No contingent), but the damage to Pinochet’s reign has been done. René finds himself reluctantly contributing to history – and confronting his country’s moral failings as well as his own.
Larraín has staked out a fertile territory as an art-house terroriser, specialising in dark tales of culturally sanctioned psychotics (the first-rate sick joke Tony Manero) and social rot (Post Mortem). His latest finds him in a much less mordant mood, parodying the cheesy signifiers of ’80s marketing in a way that could pass for whimsy. No itself, however, isn’t kitsch nostalgia so much as an attempt to accurately channel Chile’s mediafied moment when the shackles came off.
Even Larraín’s decision to shoot on crappy, period-appropriate video, which runs the risk of turning the endeavour into a public-access programme writ large, feels eerily right. The combo of retro stylistics and alpha-male ad runners had everyone name-dropping Mad Men, though that gives the film’s achievement short shrift: it’s really a pertinent example of how victory through marketing can be – or at least could be – a good thing.