warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Kitsch Hides Grit In 'No'

Catherine Green |
February 28, 2013 | 9:40 p.m. PST



Gael Garcia Bernal stars in "No." (MovieWeb.com)
Gael Garcia Bernal stars in "No." (MovieWeb.com)
In scenes and context strikingly similar to present-day unrest, "No" avoids the period-drama trap of feeling stale, delivering an emotionally rewarding narrative that stops just short of inspirational schmaltz.

What’s most impressive about that feat is how heavily the film relies on the style and imagery audiences might expect if they were yanked back to the over-the-top acid wash decade on display.

Mexican actor Gael García Bernal stars as René Saavedra, an ad executive recruited to head a marketing campaign against Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. It’s 1988, and Pinochet is looking to add another eight years to his 15-year stint in power by offering a referendum — Yes or No to extending his reign. “Just a consultancy,” René tells himself and inquiring associates, a line thrown back at him as the campaign trail heats up.

Branding and gimmicks are king in director Pablo Larraín’s movie — both in scene and out. "No" is shot intentionally to match the era it portrays, with grainy footage, glare from the sun blocking out shots of our Marty McFly hero riding his skateboard. At first, the effect is distracting, seemingly too lighthearted for a story detailing the aftermath of a revolution. But novelty settles in to become reality as the narrative unfolds. The Chile we see is idyllic, suburban and mundane. Evidence of the surrounding conflict is confined to reports from minor characters, newsreel footage and some establishing shots of René’s fiery anti-establishment ex, Verónica (Antonia Zegers).

It isn’t until much later in the film that we feel for ourselves a sense of danger, and start to grasp what’s at stake for René and his team.

Mostly, we’re treated to something like a low-budget episode of "Mad Men" set 25 years ahead. The rag tag group of ad men take the No campaign in a risky but ultimately brilliant new direction. The people, they reason, are scared of the unknown. Their current misery — in which loved ones are kidnapped or beheaded, but hey, at least we’ve got jobs — is undesirable, but familiar. René taps the advertising tactics he’s honed on pitches for household appliances and TV shows to rebrand the nation’s potential next chapter: “Chile, happiness is coming.”

Kitschy shots of pastoral picnics and bespandexed dancers — not to mention a recurrent mime, whose appearances drew consistent laughter from the audience — during their 15 minutes of airtime each night become a character unto themselves. Director Larrain uses actual commercials from the campaign, which fit in seamlessly with the lo-def footage shot today. We start to revel in these, and find ourselves looking forward to what cheesy scenario will be recreated next. The in-movie commercial spots have the desired effect on us that René and his production company hope they’ll have on the masses.

On the flip side of that is René’s business partner, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), who steps in to lead the Yes campaign. He overhauls the boring patriotism in Pinochet’s ads to respond directly to the No team’s contrivances, holding them up as the work of radicals in clowns’ clothing. It’s unclear how involved Lucho is when the war between the ad men gets dicey, threatening goons lurking in parked cars outside of the Nos’ nighttime brainstorm sessions.

This dynamic between Lucho and René is intriguing throughout the film — an embodiment of “all’s fair in ads and war.” Lucho is skeptical of René’s new gig from the beginning, asking him outright if he’s comfortable working for communists. When he joins the rival team, we see a more sinister side of Lucho, not quite to the exaggerated point of horse heads in bed, but a winner-takes-all investment in squashing the competition.

Meanwhile, Larraín and his screenwriter Pedro Peirano do a remarkable job making the audience care about their mild-mannered protagonist. René is likeable enough, but he seems to be drifting through life even after hopping on board the No campaign. He treats this as a job — a job which puts his family in danger and welcomes home intruders on a regular basis, but a job nonetheless. René’s most endearing moments are those with his young son, Simón (Pascal Montero). He’s clutching the boy during the film’s violent climax, just before election night. It seems to prompt an epiphany for him: This is not the world he wants his son to grow up in.

If the plot’s relevance wasn’t already evident, it’s this eruption on screen that drives it home. With a fresher wardrobe, the clashes between soldiers and citizenry could have been ripped from the streets of Egypt or Syria, both in the throes of their own battles to unseat dictators and find a new normal. This is a turning point for both the audience and René. As we watch René see for himself the need for his campaign’s success, we realize we care deeply about the meaning behind the goofy imagery he’s pedaled throughout.

Like the unorthodox troupe featured, "No" takes a lot of risks in its offbeat storytelling. The retro, shabby-chic cinematography, sight gags and historical setting all carry the potential to lose the audience, and thus derail any attempt to connect past with present-day strife. But the film’s sincerity and subtlety save it, delivering a resonating perspective on decades-old realities that still ring true.

Reach Editor-in-Chief Catherine Green here. Follow her here.




Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.