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“No” is a picture that perches precariously on the cusp of a paradox. The paradox is bound up in the title. The ultimate signifier of negativity, in this case, denotes an event of heroic positivity.

“No” was the name and the battle cry of a 1988 campaign aimed at ending the dictatorship of Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet. After 15 years in power following the violent overthrow and suicide of democratically elected President Salvador Allende, Pinochet, responding to international pressure, particularly from Pope John Paul II, called a plebiscite to determine whether he would remain in power. Chilean voters were given a choice: Vote “Yes,” and the military junta led by Pinochet would retain control of the country. Vote “No,” and machinery would be set in motion to permit a free presidential election and a return to democracy.

“No” is a gripping dramatization of the effort to oust the dictator. Its hero is, of all things, an ad man named Rene Saavedra. Played with a sense of calm deliberation by Gael García Bernal, Saavedra is a composite creation of Chilean director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Pedro Peirano. A reluctant recruit to the cause, he comes up with a plan for an advertising campaign that relentlessly accentuates the positive. Rather than focusing on the regime’s brutality, he designs a campaign that uses a cheery jingle, sprightly dance numbers and a bright rainbow logo to drive home the message, “happiness is coming” if only people will vote “No.”

The similarities of this campaign to Coke commercials is noted by an outraged member of the “No” leadership, who thinks it trivializes the plight of Chileans. But Saavedra resolutely makes the case that his “spoonful of sugar” approach is the best way to offer hope to a people grown hopeless under years of repression.

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Larraín expertly ratchets up the tension as Saavedra becomes increasingly aware that the government is keeping him under surveillance and worries, with some justification, that his actions are putting his safety and the safety of his young son and activist ex-wife in peril. But Saavedra and his colleagues persist in their tricky task of planting happy seeds of hope. Their harvest is an unexpectedly joyful one.

Soren Andersen:

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