Dictators are generally overthrown, not voted out of office. Yet that’s what happened to Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1988 when his 15-year strong-arm rule – noted for its colossal human-rights abuses and its vast numbers of imprisoned, murdered, “disappeared,” and exiled citizens – was removed from office as the result of a national referendum mandated by the general’s increasingly reluctant allies (including the United States).
The ballot was a simple yea or nay: Vote yes to uphold the Pinochet regime; vote no to kick the tyrant out of office. It had been deemed by the international forces calling for the election that there be nightly broadcasts on Chilean TV by the pro-Pinochet and opposition groups stating their cases. Each group received 15 minutes of television time for several weeks leading up to election day, and it’s in this crucible of these broadcasts that the story of No takes place.
René Saavedra (Bernal) is a creative, young advertising executive who was trained in Mexico while living in exile with his parents. Now back in Chile, René lives a comfortable existence with his young son, Simon. His wife, Verónica (Zegers), is an anti-Pinochet activist who gets into frequent political scrapes. She no longer lives with Simon and apolitical René, though she visits them nightly. She holds the opinion voiced by many members of the opposition: The election is a sham, the tally will be rigged; therefore, their opinions will be more effectively voiced by not voting at all. When René is approached by an old family friend to help in the creation of the opposition’s nightly programming, he surprisingly comes aboard as an adviser. He immediately sees that the opposition will shoot itself in the foot with its sombre and dogmatic videos that will be rejected outright by the Chilean population. Democracy, he discovers, can be sold just like soft drinks and microwave ovens: beguiling people with the promise of a better and happier tomorrow. Yet throughout the film, there is also an inkling that René’s decisions are not wholly altruistic; maybe it’s a way to woo back Verónica.
No is the final film in a trilogy by Pablo Larrain, in which all the films are set amid the Pinochet regime. (Tony Manero and Post Mortem are the previous two.) René is a fictional, composite character based on figures who actually worked on the No campaign. However, a great deal of archival news footage and the original TV spots are employed in the making of No. To make things look consistent, Larrain shot the new material with a 1983 U-matic video camera so that everything would intercut unnoticeably. The 2012 material, as well as the 1988 material, is marked by its handheld wobbliness, visual flashes, and light flares. It all looks crummy, to say the least, but this is clearly the director’s intent. I’m not fully convinced that the technique delivers the kind of veracity the filmmakers were trying to achieve, although it is a creative solution to an intractable visual problem.
A film about creating advertisements shares some of the problems inherent to making a film about writers: The intrinsic activity under observation can sometimes be as exciting as watching paint dry. No mostly sidesteps this pitfall with its peppy odes to democracy, which could easily be mistaken for “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola commercials. It’s clear that the language of advertising has become universal, and that political commodities can be sold like soap. But toppling a dictatorship? Now there’s a story.