By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
Toppling a dictatorship is a subject not generally covered in comedies, despite rare examples such as “Bananas” and “Moon Over Parador.” But put aside all thoughts of Sacha Baron Cohen when it comes to the latest example of a very small subgenre.
“No” isn’t exactly a comedy, anyway; more like a feel-good exercise in deep, deep irony. The setting is 1988 Chile, where a national referendum will decide the future of strongman Augusto Pinochet: a Yes vote will allow Pinochet to remain in power, a No vote will trigger an open election.
Although it is assumed that the Yes forces will easily triumph, an unexpected wrinkle enters the scene: advertising.
Each side in the campaign will be allotted 15 minutes a day on the networks to plead their case. The No campaign calls in the services of a blithely amoral ad genius, a “Mad Men” type whose own life may be empty but who knows how to sell, sell, sell.
His name is Rene Saavedra (played by Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal), a composite of a couple of real-life figures from this time. There’s little indication that he’s political, but he turns around the No campaign with his sure sense of what the public wants.
The anti-Pinochet operatives are certain that showing the widespread poverty and social misery caused by the Pinochet regime will win the day. Rene knows better; that stuff doesn’t play in a 30-second ad. What the No campaign needs is a good jingle.
In quietly giddy strokes, the movie shows how an upbeat, frequently absurd ad campaign sells the idea that freedom is superior (and more fun) than dictatorship. At times the movie seems to become a Frank Capra picture reborn in South America.
Director Pablo Larrain maintains a near-flawless tone here; the movie’s not silly (at times Rene is reminded of the lethal seriousness of his opposition), yet it trades in silliness. Larrain and cinematographer Sergio Armstrong shot the movie with an ancient kind of videotape, so it blends in with newsreel footage and gives the whole enterprise the look of a vintage-1988 VHS tape.
Larrain’s previous films, “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem,” were remarkably good, and remarkably downbeat.
You’d almost think he changed his tune from full-time miserabilist to neo-Capra, except for the way he signals to us that something as phony as advertising has so much power. That adds just the wry dash of bitters to this otherwise buoyant cocktail.
“No” 3 and 1/2 stars
The 1988 Chilean referendum on whether to keep strongman Augusto Pinochet in power gets an unexpectedly buoyant treatment here; the campaign to oust Pinochet is aided by an advertising man (Gael Garcia Bernal) who sells an upbeat take on the election. The movie’s both wry and giddy, and shot on VHS-style videotape that looks just like ‘88. In Spanish, with English subtitles.
Rated: R for language.
Showing: Guild 45th.