Part of the power of "No," Pablo Larrain's political drama about the protracted fall of Chile's nefarious Augusto Pinochet, comes from its parallels with culture circa 2013. When the hot young ad exec Rene Saavedra (a particularly soulful Gael Garcia Bernal) gets on board the 1988 "no" campaign -- a "yes' vote would support Pinochet's rule -- he has to convince his reluctant, hard-line leftist partners that the way to win Chilean hearts is the same way you sell them Coca-Cola -- with a smile.
The callously commercial strategy Saavedra takes, juxtaposed with the fate of a country under a murderous regime, gives "No" an enormous amount of tension, even as it takes a cynical look at the consumerist mentality.
Larrain ("Post Mortem," "Tony Manero") makes a daring but ultimately off-putting choice, filming "No" in U-matic, the ubiquitous format of '80s television. While this makes the dramatic portion of the film match up visually with the real-life newscasts and on-air campaign spots that filled the Chilean airwaves of 1988 -- each side was allowed 15 minutes a night, in woeful time slots, to make its case -- the effect is also distractingly ugly.
Look past the surface, however, and one finds a profound and moving story, thanks largely to Bernal's performance as the tortured Rene. He deeply loves his young son, and is losing his leftist firebrand wife, who sneers at the plebiscite, Rene's involvement in it and, of course, the soft-pedal approach he wants to take toward winning Chilean hearts and minds. That he's right is not -- ultimately, sadly -- enough. And on every level, "No" leaves one with bittersweet feelings about democracy, love and the cost of compromise.
PLOT In 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet calls for a public referendum on his despotic regime, and a young advertising man gets on board the "vote no" campaign.
RATING R (language)
CAST Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers
BOTTOM LINE Strong, moving, evocative period piece with a misguided visual style but an enormous amount of heart. (In Spanish with English subtitles.)