Directed by Pablo Larraín (Sony Pictures, 2012)
Topple a dictator with a rainbow and a jingle? Lash back against oppression with candy-coated images and idyllic picnic scenes? End a regime of violence and fear with an almost comedic message of hope? This was the creative gambit used in a cleverly orchestrated advertising campaign that inspired Pablo Larraín’s much-acclaimed film No.
The “no” of the title refers to a 1988 referendum where the people of Chile were given the opportunity to end Augusto Pinochet’s rule with a simple vote of “yes” or “no.” The film shows, however, that the vote is anything but simple. Older Chileans are wary of a return to conditions of poverty and scarcity. Younger Chileans beset by oppression believe the election is rigged. The government itself is set to oppose and undermine the “No” campaign by whatever means necessary. The creative mind behind that campaign, René Saavedra, played thoughtfully by Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries), has his work cut out for him.
What is truly clever about the movie is how it steers a path between the two “either/or” tendencies of films with strong historical-political content. It avoids both the often heavy-handed, dark aesthetic that can leave viewers feeling simply depressed or angry while also avoiding a Pollyannaish perspective that erases all traces of the reality of suffering.
Instead we see proposed ad campaigns that emphasize the horrors of the past. We see the faces of the disappeared in photographs pinned to the chests of their long-suffering loved ones. But we also see 1980s-style song and dance crafted to make the viewer smile. For a Catholic audience, this ability to look forward in hope, while being honest about the sufferings of the past and present, may become a rousing message. You may even find yourself humming the infectious jingle, “Chile, happiness is coming!”\
This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 6, page 42).