In movies, the Chilean dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet has generally and accurately been portrayed as a brutal regime, in which dissidents could be exiled, tortured, murdered and "disappeared" by the state with chilling impunity.
Yet one can't help conclude the dictatorship was viewed more generously in the country itself. Under foreign pressure, Pinochet put his leadership to a vote in 1988 in a straight yes-no plebiscite. Backed by the wealthy and the business community, Pinochet damn near won.
Chilean director Pablo Larrain focuses on the battle behind the plebiscite with No, avoiding the backroom deals and compromises between the anti-Pinochet coalition and perversely emphasizing the actual ad campaigns mounted by both factions.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays hip young advertising exec René Saavedra, a man making a good living at an agency selling cola and microwave ovens to a new generation of Chileans, using MTV-era visuals. He begins every client pitch with an assertion that the people of modern Chile are ready for this sort of thing.
The plebiscite guarantees both sides of the debate will have 15 minutes of television airtime, and René is approached to create ads that will motivate the citizenry, cowed by Pinochet's ruthless power, to vote "No."
René protests that he is apolitical, despite his ex-wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), a fiery activist routinely arrested by the police. We gather René may choose to keep his beliefs internalized to protect his young son.
In any case, René signs on as an adviser. His notions of sending a positive message ("Chile, happiness is coming!") rankle the old-school radicals who, given unprecedented freedom from state censorship, want to itemize Pinochet's history of human-rights violations.
But some of René's ideas -- like using a jingle instead of an earnest protest song -- take hold in the nightly broadcasts. His work is so successful, the Yes side drafts René's conservative boss Lucho (Alfredo Castro) to counter-attack.
Even more menacing, Pinochet-backed thugs and police attempt to intimidate the No side with acts of vandalism and sabotage, acts that seem to compel René to greater efforts, not so much to protect his young son, but to act in his best interests for the future of the country.
Larrain makes the dubious choice of filming the movie with Sony U-Matic video cameras of the period. This makes for a seamless blend when he inserts actual ads from both sides of the campaign. But it also renders much of the film blearily ugly.
But the overall work is pretty fascinating, especially in today's era of ever-more virulent attack ads.
The film's key scene may be one in which René and Lucho, in the heat of their propaganda battle, put their differences on hold to pitch a campaign for a soap opera.
Among myriad images of singing, dancing, rioting and atrocity, this scene may best exemplify the tense undercurrent of a country divided.