Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Chilean foreign-language Oscar nominee “No” stars Gael García Bernal as René Saavedra, a young ad exec recently returned to Santiago from his family’s political exile. As the movie opens in 1988, René delivers an alarmingly upbeat demo spot for a new soft drink, Free (“What the fuck,” the client asks, “is a mime doing in my commercial?”).
When, under international pressure, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (who came to power in a 1973 military coup that overthrew elected President Salvador Allende) calls an up-or-down plebiscite on his regime, René is hired to coordinate the NO campaign, which is allotted fifteen minutes a day on state TV in the month leading up to the vote, from midnight to 12:15 (YES gets 12:15 to 12:30).

He brings the same smiley-faced, singsong, rainbows-and-sunshine sensibility to the plebiscite as to his corporate work, instantly offending most of Chile’s myriad dissident groups, who would rather use their airtime to catalogue Pinochet’s human rights abuses. René walks out on them; he agrees with everything they say, but knows it won’t sell. You’ve got to offer optimism – fun. - to get people to buy, particularly when Pinochet, whatever his faults, makes the proverbial trains run on time. It’s a fascinating set-up for a movie, and I was prepared to like “No” a lot.

Unfortunately, while René fills his ads with uptempo music, the film itself rarely sings. I like the production design – with some unmistakably ‘80s props (Heavy Hands, anyone?) – and director Pablo Larrain’s deliberately un-hi-def cinematography (though, if anything, it looks a bit pre-’88). And the commercials themselves – many of them the actual ads that ran a quarter-century ago – are must-see. But Larrain’s bloated the movie up to just under two hours with ad-agency intrigue and family matters (involving René’s activist wife and caught-in-the-crossfire son) that feel underdeveloped, even perfunctory. And Bernal – who was practically irresistible seven years ago in Michel Gondry’s underseen “The Science of Sleep,” and has made his share of really good pictures – still struggles at times to convey emotions beyond puppy-dog sweetness. Here, he’s often a blank slate.

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