Thursday, March 21, 2013

Selling the overthrow of a dictator

No offers a telling look at how Pinochet was ousted.
In 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet presumed that he had the muscle to survive a plebiscite on his rule, a victory that would squelch opposition while creating the illusion that the Chilean strongman had popular support. As we now know, Pinochet's rule came to an end. To his and many other people's amazement, Pinochet lost the plebiscite.

The movie No tells the story of that momentous vote through an unusual and narrow perspective, the ad campaign that was mounted against the Chilean strongman.

No was shot video-style (more on this later) in an apparent effort to match some of the original advertisements that were used by the campaign to oust Pinochet, ads that appeared on TV during a 15-minute, government-dictated time slot.

The story centers on Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), a young hotshot in Chile's advertising business. Rene more or less stumbles into the "No" campaign. For the most part, he's apolitical, a mindset that seems to have contributed to his estrangement from his more politically oriented wife (Antonia Zegers). The couple's young son lives with Rene, but he wishes that his wife would return home.

To the credit of director Pablo Larrain , the story doesn't morph into the expected tale of personal transformation: Rene's mind seems to expand a bit as the movie progresses, but he's no Che in waiting.

Rene learns what it's like to find himself on what many of his advertising pals view as the "wrong" side an issue, but he never entirely gives up the benefits that derive from his skills as an adman. It's almost as if the "No" campaign takes Rene from happy indifference to troubled ambivalence, hardly a radical leap.

Rene's boss -- played by Alfred Castro -- continually seeks to remind his talented young employee about where his bread is buttered, and Rene's hopped-up approach to advertising doesn't always play well with the political types behind the "No" campaign. They want to emphasize Pinochet's worst abuses.

Rene, whose immaturity is suggested by the fact that he likes to zip around on a skateboard, thinks the best way to sell "no" is by getting people to think "yes." Put another way, he's selling folks what most ads promise, a happy future.

One drawback: Larrain reportedly used video equipment of the period to make his film. I'm enough of a visual snob to say that I would have preferred a better-looking production, and the ads themselves can begin to feel repetitive.

Having said that, it's still worth noting that No manages -- through storytelling and the use of real ads and recreations -- to encapsulate part of the story about how the Pinochet regime received the boot.

I don't know enough about Chilean history to know whether the movie is spot-on. But Bernal's appealing performance and Larrain's view of the ways in which people can be manipulated combine for an intriguing take on how well-applied grease can help the wheels of history to turn.

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