Movie review: 'No' celebrates the possible in politics

Review • Drama tells of historic anti-Pinochet vote.
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We sometimes forget that politics, in those rare times it's done well, can be a source of optimism and hope.

The Chilean drama "No" recounts one of those times – a moment in history when the mechanics of a political campaign reflected voters' dreams and not their fears.

Director Pablo Larrain begins with some historical backstory, starting with the military dictator Augusto Pinochet's bloody 1973 coup against the elected government of socialist Salvador Allende. (The movie touches lightly on the fact that Pinochet was supported by the United States, another sterling achievement of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.)

After 15 years of brutal military rule, Pinochet's regime felt foreign pressure to appear legitimate. So the government proposed a plebiscite, an up-or-down vote on whether Pinochet should stay in power. The campaign season would be less than a month, and each side would be given 15 minutes of airtime every night on the regime-controlled media to make their pitch.

The movie's main character, René Saaverda (played by the hunky Mexican star Gael García Bernal), is more interested in soda pop than politics. René works on the creative side of a Chilean advertising firm, an expert on selling product with a sharp presentation.

René reluctantly agrees to offer his opinion to the opposition leaders mounting the anti-Pinochet campaign. His verdict is that their message – which point out Pinochet's record of quashing dissent with imprisonment, torture and "disappearing" people – is too much of a downer to appeal to voters. He suggests an upbeat campaign, with a rainbow logo (which he sells to the fractious anti-Pinochet groups as a symbol of inclusion) and the cheery tagline "Happiness is coming."

As René is drawn deeper into the campaign, pressures mount. His boss, Guzman (Alfredo Castro), who starts making ads for the pro-Pinochet "Si" campaign, subtly threatens René with firing. Strange black cars start following him, and soon he receives threats to himself, his ex-wife (Veronica Zegers) and their son.

Larrain (completing a trilogy of Pinochet-era films that includes "Tony Manero" and "Post Mortem") and screenwriter Pedro Peirano ("The Maid") illuminate the high-stakes gamble that the "No" partisans faced challenging the Pinochet machine – and also the strangely giddy feeling of finally exercising their voices, even if limited to 15 minutes a night. Larrain also captures the gritty feel of the '80s by mixing archival footage with new material shot on a 1983 U-Matic video camera, the kind in use at the time.

Politics, Otto von Bismarck said, is "the art of the possible." "No" is that rare movie that shows that sometimes, in politics, anything is possible.

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A grassroots political campaign becomes a symbol of hope in this gritty, exhilarating drama from Chile.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.

When • Opens Friday, April 12.

Rating • R for language.

Running time • 118 minutes; in Spanish with subtitles.