Ad man Gael García Bernal topples a dictator

Mar. 26, 2013
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When a dictator holds a referendum, he expects an affirmative outcome. But when one of Latin America’s most notorious dictators, Augusto Pinochet, put the question of his future to voters in 1988, he received a resounding “No!” Gael García Bernal stars in the Oscar-nominated No, the simplified story of how the Chilean people rejected the general that had ruled their country since 1973.

Bernal plays René, a young advertising director drawn by political and social sympathy to the campaign to vote out the dictatorship. Under the terms of Chile’s 1980 constitution, Pinochet’s regime faced a plebiscite in 1988 in which Chileans could vote on whether to continue his governing system. With international pressure mounting, Pinochet made a show of fair play, granting equal time on national television each night for advertorials for the pro-government “yes campaign” and the “no movement,” a coalition of moderates, socialists and communists. As No opens, René makes a pitch to colleagues and clients based around youth, boldness, rebellion and romance; it’s the campaign he’s conceived for a soft drink, but soon enough he turns his flair for promotion toward a more important objective.

Puppy-eyed yet intense, with a shy smile conveying thoughtfulness and warmth, Bernal is perfectly cast as the poster man for the movement to retire the aging dictator. As the account executive for “no,” René faces negativity from left and right. His boss at the ad agency is working for the “yes campaign” and many of his comrades on the left resent a promotional blitz that ignores the summary executions, disappearances and mass arrests perpetrated by Pinochet. Some wonder whether they should take part in a referendum that might be rigged. A master of soft sell, René’s ads depict democracy as an attractive lifestyle option filled with smiling happy people holding hands as they dance and ride horseback toward a brighter tomorrow. For music, he chose a jingle, not an anthem, with a theme song closer to “We Are the World” than “Sunday, Bloody Sunday.”

No is compelling and paced like a good two-hour advertisement, but its problems begin with ugly, bleached-out digital photography and end with a distortion of history. Yes, those TV ads were important in swaying Chilean public opinion, yet No implies that advertising conquered all—that grassroots organizing and old-fashioned political action were small bones compared to the persuasive power of the “no” movement’s television campaign. The leftists who argue against René seem stuffy, stuck in a past that will soon be left behind in a society where image is everything and substance an afterthought.

Opens Friday, March 29, Oriental Theatre.



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