It’s a strange notion that happiness can be packaged and bought like a bottle of ketchup. But in order for Chileans to overthrow their dictatorship in a 1988 election, this is what had to happen—enough citizens had to buy into the idea of a future state of happiness.
And, as is the case for most products, happiness had to be advertised. Pablo Larrain’s fourth film and third installment of his trilogy about Chile’s dictatorship, No tells the story of how an advertising campaign for happiness overthrew 15 years of tyrannical rule.
For many Chileans, September 11 was a day of infamy long before 2001. It marked the day, in 1973, when Augusto Pinochet began his brutal dictatorship. Restricting human rights and banning opposition, Pinochet forced thousands of Chileans into exile. Death tolls exceeded 3,000, and many more were either imprisoned or just disappeared. This continued until 1988, when the U.S. spearheaded foreign pressure upon Pinochet to call for a referendum. A plebiscite would be held in which the public would simply vote “yes” to keep Pinochet in power, or “no.”
There were rules to the game. Each campaign—the Yes team (Pinochet’s cabinet) and the No team (a coalition of 16 political parties)—would have 15 minutes of TV airtime each day to convince the public why they should vote for their side. The No team hired a young, good-looking advertising man named René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) to help construct their campaign. Although he himself never speaks a decibel over a soft, soothing indoor voice, his ads are loud, flashy and modern. As it happens, his boss, an older, more conservative man by the name of Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro), sits on Pinochet’s advisory board and is the quarterback of the Yes team. Secrecy and tension? More than a little.
The film opens with Saavedra and Guzman presenting a TV ad for the soda, Free, to a table of clients. “If you’re brave, you’re free,” is the punchline, which doubles as the punchline for the entire film. Saavedra is a winner, whether it’s convincing consumers with brash advertisements, or pitching his advertisements to clients. But when the No team hires him, it doesn’t think it can win. The odds are too high against them with all of the people who would vote “no” too despondent to leave their couches on voting day, and chances are the voting is rigged. Their goal for the 15 minutes is to raise awareness about the tragedies Pinochet has incurred. “There’s a process of learnt hopelessness,” one male team member says. But that is not a process Saavedra has been a part of. His kind of winning takes hope. Therefore, if No is to win, it needs to give people something for which to hope.
That something, Saavedra decides, is happiness. Out with the fear, in with rainbows and sunshine—literally. The rainbow, which represents the different political parties, becomes the mascot for the No campaign and is the segue into each 15 minute segment, which is filled with people dancing, picnics, riding horses through fields, and a catchy jingle. Having branded the No vote as happiness, he uses the 15 minutes of airtime as advertising to sell the product. Like most commercials from the ’80s, it’s hilariously cheesy, but its goal is inspire enough Chileans to cast their vote, not to soberly attack Pinochet and play like a depressing news segment. In that, it succeeds.
Filmed on a 1983 U-matic video camera, the film looks authentic; it has the mellow haze of an ’80s film, and it’s difficult to pick out the woven-in archival clips of riots, police fights and the actual campaigns. The narrative arc is pretty old-fashioned, too—the story is a straight shot from beginning to end. The one unusual aspect of the film is that Larrain never shows the voters’ reactions to the ads until the end of the film when it’s time to go to the polls. Rather, he darts back and forth between the two teams, showing their internal workings and critiques of each other’s. So the only real way to gauge the reception of the No ads is the Yes team’s reaction to them. It’s an inspired choice—after all, the audience already knows the outcome (or if they don’t, it’s easily Wikipedia-able). It also allows Larrain to avoid wasting time with side shots of families huddled around their TVs hoping for a better future, freeing him to instead spend more time getting inside the heads of both teams and focus on Saavedra’s creative process.
Bernal plays the creative type perfectly. His big eyes always seem to be seeing things that others don’t, and through his calm, methodical demeanor, you can sense the wheels turning in his head. He’s stubborn, and once he settles on idea—whether it be the No rainbow or keeping his family together—he can never let it go. Bernal is known for this quiet, sincere confidence, which he has displayed in films like The Motorcycle Diaries and Babel, but it’s at its most tangible in No. Even as his estranged wife, played by Chilean TV star Antónia Zegers, constantly demeans the campaign, arguing that working for a rigged election only further boosts Pinochet, Bernal’s ad man exudes a stubborn optimism that only a creator who’s slave to his own mind would possess.
It’s fascinating to watch the unfolding power of a campaign well done. The effects are remarkably similar to Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats or Obama’s Change—mind-shattering for supporters, spine-shattering for the opposition. A yet-unknown future can wield exponentially more power than the present if packaged correctly. But creation of a future that seems both utopian yet attainable takes a puissant, invisible hand to orchestrate. Lucky for us, and thanks to Larrain, that hand is now not so invisible.
Director: Pablo Larrain
Writer: Pedro Peirano
Starring: Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antónia Zegers
Release Date: Feb. 15, 2013