A winning retelling of the Chilean national plebiscite of 1988, which resulted in dictator Augusto Pinochet falling from power, No is part three of a trilogy by director Pablo Larraín that began in 2008 with Tony Manero and continued in 2010 with Post Mortem, which depicted the start of Pinochet’s 17-year reign. For the capper, Larraín employs a vintage aesthetic that’s wholly immersive, with the filmed action not just intercut with archival footage, but matching it as well. A shoddy-looking film by typical standards, No sees its characters awash in the alternately grayed and saturated hues of retro video, and as adamantly un-sharp as the figures in decades-old home movies. Playing René Saavedra, an advertising hotshot enlisted to aid the campaign against Pinochet (supporters were known as the “Yes” party; those in opposition, the “No”), Gael García Bernal is filmed, alongside his co-stars, with a U-matic video camera circa 1983, dug up by a committed Larraín to present a uniform visual scheme. Naturally, watching No isn’t a totally seamless experience, but as the film unfolds, Larraín’s technique proves far more than mere novelty, pulling the viewer further into the period and evolving to become uniquely and unexpectedly beautiful.
International pressure forces the plebiscite, or referendum, on Pinochet’s presidency, and the chief challenge for the “No” underdogs is to sway the undecided, educating the ignorant young and roping in the complacent old. Conventional wisdom says to use the typical scare tactics, publicly broadcasting horrors and statistics (33,000 killed; 200,000 tortured), but the irrepressible René steps in with a different plan, diverting the opposers’ trajectory toward a place of near-farcical peace. Traditionally trained in the arts of sales and people-pleasing, René concocts an approach deemed offensive by many of his peers, offering a sample PSA that mirrors a trite and tacky Coke commercial, and allegedly undermining the seriousness of people’s suffering. But despite the naysayers, René persists, and with a team that’s also well-stocked with skeptics, he films a campaign that pulls together an embarrassment of ’80s TV clichés, from big-haired backup singers to parades of neon-colored clothing, all captured in the same dog-eared format resurrected by Larraín. No’s sense of nostalgia is a major part of its appeal (especially when clips pop up with celebrity “No” supporters like Jane Fonda and Christopher Reeve), but it doesn’t trump the infectious satisfaction of René’s promotion of positivity. “Faith is what will change Chile,” the adman says, and despite his goofily frolicsome TV segments, there’s nothing kitschy about the character. In terms of plainly combatting cynicism without glopping on sentiment, No is something of a marvel, and unlike most fact-based films, it simply lets you watch unlikely, unwitting heroism develop.
René’s elaborately overproduced videos catch on, of course, so much so that Pinochet’s own supporters, including René’s duplicitous boss, Lucho (Alfredo Castro), scold their own campaigners and scramble to counterattack, resorting to the very mud-slinging the “No” clips gleefully avoid. The movie achieves the intensity of a journalistic thriller as it introduces threats on the lives of René and his crew members, a development that forces René to tearfully leave his son, Simon (Pascal Montero), with his estranged wife, Verónica (Antónia Zegers), a radical activist who’s against the vote altogether. What No ultimately shows is a political awakening, charting the liberation of an oppressed people via the rapid and pivotal inner changes of one man. Though unwaveringly devoted to his endpoint, René, whose every move rings true in Bernal’s control, begins his “No” campaign gig as a seemingly unfazed salesman, believing in the cause in the same way he might a product in a pitch meeting. By the end, he’s walking amid the pro-“No” revelers like a shell-shocked convert, on the verge of tears while processing the fact that he essentially just spearheaded Pinochet’s unseating. A singular biopic and a snapshot of a society renewed, No unaffectedly celebrates faith in democracy, and, surprisingly, truth in advertising.