Chile’s very first nominee for Best Foreign Language Film is a political drama about the country’s national referendum held in 1988. The plebiscite concerned whether Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet should extend his rule for another eight-years in office. The vote is simply ‘Yes’ in favor of the idea and ‘No’ for anything else. René Saavedra, an adman played by Gael García Bernal, joins the fight against Pinochet. Saavedra eschews exposing the abuses of the dictator’s regime in his commercials. His revolutionary concept is to pitch the ‘no vote’ much in the same way that he advertises soft drinks. Instead of fear mongering he wants to use catchy jingles, happy people, and rainbows to incite people to come out and make their voice heard.
Director Pablo Larraín shoots the production like a documentary. He utilizes U-matic video tape, the kind used by newscasts in the 80s, to give the film the look from that era. At times it’s a bit too grubby as the production almost looks ugly. He doesn’t even utilize widescreen so news footage from 1988 is interspersed with fresh material. It’s integrated so perfectly I often didn’t notice the difference. He even showcases actual anti-Pinochet commercials with new scenes of them shooting the ad. The clips are full of people dancing and clapping urging the viewer to vote “No” in cheerful song. These displays are surprisingly light, particularly when contrasted with the reality of Pinochet’s administration. The unexpected lighthearted tone is part of the film’s brilliance but it’s also the way it contrasts with an underlying climate of terror.
No largely succeeds because it makes us understand and care. Naturally the choice of whether one would want a tyrannical dictator in power seems like an obvious decision. However when that dictator controls the media and every other aspect of society, one’s ability to vote freely is encumbered for fear of retribution. This is especially clear when it comes to Saavedra’s relationship with his young son Simón. Saavedra starts experiencing escalating threats from pro-Pinochet forces as his ‘No’ ads grow in popularity. Afraid for his child’s life, he leaves Simón in the custody of his estranged wife. The stakes are high. The script really resonates when it exposes just how much danger surrounds this election. It allows us to identify with any country trying to break free from a totalitarian state. It also makes us value and appreciate what a blessing free elections truly are.