By Hope Madden
“We have to find a product that is attractive to the people.”
That may not sound like democracy to you, but in Chile in 1988, advertising became the new democracy.
At least, that is, according to co-writer/director Pablo Larrain’s Oscar nominee, the slyly comical No.
When longtime Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet caved to international pressure, allowing a national referendum to determine whether he would rule for another 8 years, the wildly fractured “No” campaign decided to employ marketing tactics to strengthen their chances.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene, the young upstart ad exec – rat tail, acid washed jeans and all – who seems to embody Pinochet’s myopic view of Chilean prosperity. His advertising gig keeps all the lures of capitalism at his fingertips. He even has a microwave – the country must be doing OK, right?
But looking beyond his new car and soap opera photo shoot, he can see the oppression masquerading as abundance. So he relies on what he understands – consumerism – to craft an opposition campaign that’s more commercial than anything the world had seen.
Bernal gives his character a fascinating set of traits. He’s shallow enough to recommend boiling down decades of oppression, vanishings and abuse to a jingle and a Pepsi-style ad, but his lost expression and tenderness with his son (Pascal Montero) show a man struggling to do right by his country.
Larrain‘s aesthetic is all ’88 – it feels like you’re watching an overused VHS, but that low-rent quality gives his film more than a throwback feel. It articulates the sense of a population kidding itself about its quality of living.
Not all is as light as it seems in Rene’s world, and the same can be said for Larrain’s film. He builds a real sense of foreboding, of impending danger. When Pinochet’s campaign accepts the popularity of the No approach, they abandon their underestimation and hire Rene’s boss to rebrand them. It’s a pissing contest between two colleagues on one level, but beneath that there’s something sinister, something that illustrates the way a regime’s ugliness spreads by way of quiet acquiescence.
Plus, there are mimes!
No meanders, loses focus, and perhaps undersells Chile’s tragic backstory as openly as the No campaign’s ad exec did, but the film gets points for its clever, layered examination of a precedent setting approach to the toppling of a regime.
All because Chile rocked the vote.