In Pablo Larrain’s “No,” which opened last week and competes for the Best Language Film Oscar on Sunday, the advertising hotshot played by Gael Garcia Bernal is tasked with designing a TV campaign to bring down Augusto Pinochet in Chile’s 1988 plebiscite. Unlike his ex-wife, Véronica (Antónia Zegers), whose absence he mourns, Bernal’s René Saavedra is not a leftist radical but an opportunist whose career has thrived under the regime’s neo-liberal economic policies. The challenge of achieving the near impossible appeals to him infinitely more than moral outrage motivates him.
A brilliant salesman of panaceas, Saavedra knows that positivity rather than negativity will sway the populace to vote “No” to eight more years of Pinochet. In a meeting with opposition leaders, he quietly suggests that the campaign should promote the idea that “happiness” will be the result of ending the barbarous military dictatorship. It’s hardly a counterintuitive notion, but the older leftists want a campaign filled with images of persecution and brutality, and they reject Saavedra’s apolitical approach – one of them angrily stomping out of the room.
Saavedra wins the day, however, and comes up with an array of Coke-style images to hammer home his message: young people riding galloping horses and smiling in mountaineering gear, kids jumping on their parents’ bed, beautiful women dancing in leotards, a smiling teenage boy wearing a “No” T-shirt. One shot is of three mimes in straw boaters and facepaint, smiling inanely at the camera. It echoes an earlier Saavedra ad that featured a mime and causes Saavedra’s boss (Alfredo Castro), who’s in cahoots with the government but desperate not to lose his smartest executive and meal ticket, to question it.
What is a mime but a mute, a symbol for those who’ve been silenced? There’s a Dadaist meta-irony in that image. Since Saavedra’s so opaque, who’s to say he’s not aware of the delicious absurdity of using the tools of capitalism to bring down a leader who fostered capitalism to the lasting detriment of the people – an ideology that will stay in place once Pinochet’s gone?
“To me, the NO campaign is the first step towards the consolidation of capitalism as the only viable system in Chile,” Larrain said in an interview published in the film’s production notes.
Had “No” been a Hollywood movie, it’s likely that a hot young alpha male actor – an equivalent of Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire mode – would have been cast, and that his gradual political education would have been foregrounded as the NO vote was won (which it was, of course, in Chile). But Larrain was blessed in his leading man, Bernal being a reserved actor whose facial expressions seldom disclose what he’s feeling or thinking – and he’s seen thinking a lot in “No,” whether he’s with his colleagues, his young son, or skateboarding around Santiago.
The only times I can recall him showing emotion are when he reacts tearfully to seeing Véronica at home with her current man, and when he flinches at the violence that police inflict on her in a protest. That flinching (courageous for a movie star) corresponds with his character’s shocking, spontaneous act of self-preservation – which threatens to destroy his relationship with his fiancée (Hani Furstenberg) – in Julie Loktev’s “The Loneliest Planet,” one of last year’s most memorable films. Because Bernal is so seldom a readable presence, such illuminating moments make him much more than conventionally appealing – and much less of a salesman.