Dictators are generally overthrown, not voted out of office. Yet Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's 15-year strong-arm rule - noted for its colossal human-rights abuses and vast numbers of imprisoned, murdered, "disappeared" and exiled citizens - ended as the result of a national referendum his increasingly reluctant allies demanded in 1988.
The ballot was simple: Vote yes to uphold the Pinochet regime; vote no to kick the tyrant out of office. There were nightly broadcasts on Chilean TV for the pro- and anti-Pinochet groups to state their cases. Each group received 15 minutes of airtime for several weeks leading up to election day. No takes place in the crucible of these broadcasts.
René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is a young advertising executive who trained in Mexico while living in exile with his parents. Now back in Chile, he has a comfortable existence with his young son, Simon. His wife, Verónica (Antonia Zegers), is an anti-Pinochet activist. She no longer lives with Simon and René, though she visits them nightly. She's convinced that the election is a sham, and that the tally will be rigged. Therefore, she thinks that not voting at all is the most effective way to voice her opinion. When apolitical René is approached to help create the opposition's nightly programming, he comes aboard as an adviser. Democracy, he discovers, can be sold just like soft drinks: beguiling people with the promise of a happier tomorrow. Yet there's also an inkling that René's decisions are not wholly altruistic; maybe they're a way to woo back Verónica.
No is the final film in a trilogy by Pablo Larrain that includes Tony Manero and Post Mortem. René is a fictional character based on several people who worked on the campaign No depicts. Archival news footage and the original TV spots appear in the film. To make things look consistent, Larrain shot the new material with a 1983 U-matic videocamera. I'm not convinced the technique delivers the kind of veracity he wanted, although it is a creative solution to an intractable visual problem.
A film about creating advertisements shares some of the problems inherent to a film about writing: The activity under observation can sometimes be as exciting as watching paint dry. No mostly sidesteps this pitfall with peppy odes to democracy, which could easily be mistaken for those "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.