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Just say no, and be happy


There’s a discernible but unemphasized irony in Pablo Larrain’s No, and it may be expressed with a secular version of the line from the 18th-century poet William Cowper’s hymn: “God does work in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.”

René Saaveda (Gael García Bernal), the young Chilean advertising whiz at the picture’s center, is certainly an unlikely instrument of radical political purposes, or even liberal reforms. But nonetheless, he indisputably, if at first reluctantly, becomes one in this fictionalized narrative of events in Chile a quarter-century ago.

In 1988, Chilean strongman General Augusto Pinochet agreed to a popular referendum on whether he should serve another eight years as president. People could only vote yes or no. He was being pressured by western governments, including the United States’s, to abide by the provision for that vote in the constitution he’d promulgated in 1980. Pinochet and senior army officers had staged a coup in 1973, with US. connivance, to end the elected government of socialist Salvador Allende. Years of brutality, death and economic misery followed under the general’s dictatorship, again with US support.

But 17 years later, Pinochet thought conditions were favorable for obtaining a sort of popular consent. Leftist opponents had been imprisoned, exiled, killed, or demoralized. Most independent observers agreed with Pinochet’s assessment. And then along came René Saaveda. At least, that’s this movie’s quietly amusing conceit.

No is the last in a loose trilogy of movies by Larrain about Chile in the 1970s and 1980s and fortunately for Larrain, and Chile, history provided a neat and stirring resolution. When we first encounter René, it’s in a close-up of Bernal’s lean, pleasantly wolfish countenance. René is a star performer in the Santiago ad agency run by Lucho (the adroit Alfredo Grecco), and he’s pitching a TV commercial to the boss and colleagues. He tells them that they “have to be honest. Citizens have raised their demands for honesty.” Is he talking about a commercial for the referendum? No, it’s for a soft drink named Free. And, yes, that’s the same kind of sappy-but-slick approach he’s soon going to bring to the referendum campaign when he tentatively agrees to assist the anti-Pinochet forces. This isn’t a particularly subtle joke, but it’s more insinuatingly witty and effective than you may think.

At first, he only agrees to be “a consultant.” A leftist leader (Luis Gnecco) asks him to evaluate the commercial his team has come up with and predictably, René finds it drearily oppressive. He regards all this as a problem of craft and persuasive techniques. As he’s drawn more deeply into the effort, he comes up with his own TV campaign: a variation on the soft drink ad featuring a rainbow logo; a tagline, “Happiness is Coming!” and shots of joyful, energized citizens. Just as predictably, some of the No team are dismissive, some angered, and one prominent socialist resigns from the campaign. (A high military officer and member of the ruling junta responds to René’s boss, “A rainbow? Isn’t that for faggots?”) René’s estranged activist wife tells him that it doesn’t matter because the vote is fixed. His boss tries to buy him off with a company partnership.

But René perseveres. Why? At first, he seems to regard it mostly as a new professional and technical challenge. Do his patient, calmly explained creations become the product of a real commitment to a cause? René never says, and neither, really, does the movie. There are a number of potential hints along the way, but the young man doesn’t experience an obvious Damascus-road turnabout. We’re left a little bemused by him, if also modestly hopeful and encouraged by his behavior.

Larrain has put No together in an almost documentary style, and to create a contemporary look he employed vintage Sony U-matic video cameras. This results in sometimes grainy, brown-hued imagery, but it’s not really distracting. Bernal’s mutedly sensitive performance is a consistently convincing element, tying things together.

In the end, René remains his own man, but is he the same one who began this experience? One may doubt this, but René doesn’t provide any definitive answer.

Watch the trailer for No

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