General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship of Chile was brutal and undemocratic, but was at least it was the agent of its own destruction. In 1988 the regime held a referendum on whether Pinochet should remain in power for another eight years. NO tells the tale of the lead-up to that election.

No, leave me alone, I want to sleep

Gael García Bernal is René Saavedra, a young advertising creative who is given the job of selling the idea of a democratic constitution to the Chilean people by saying ‘no’ to Pinochet. Both sides of the debate, the Pinochetistas and the democrats, were given 15 minutes of television time each night over the 27 days that led up to the election. The fate of the country rested on these party political broadcasts that René and his team had to churn out each day.

If you know anything about Chilean history, you will know that the people said yes to ‘no’. Pinochet was ousted and the country started the long process of coming to terms with almost two decades of torture, disappearances and institutionalised terror.

Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden (1994) and Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010) are two moving films that looked at the experience. NO promises a lighter, more accessible route into this important, if troubling corner of recent history. Sadly, it doesn’t quite make it.

This is despite starring Gael García Bernal – one of the few young Latin American actors with a global star presence. Yes, he is good in NO, but this is not enough to make the film engaging. Even though it is a clever idea to have a charming, and apparently superficial, ad man clashing with engaged activists who have suffered for their cause, this doesn’t carry the film either. Nor does the fact that post-Mad Men we all love grappling with advertising briefs in dramas.

Apart from René, we do not get to know or care for the characters well enough. Even René’s relationship with his wife remains cold and uninteresting, and neither are René’s relationships with his colleagues particularly remarkable. No, NO is prefers to focus on the referendum rather than the lives of the ad men. This would be fine, but even the debates about the broadcasts are dry, intellectual and rather too talky.

The film is shot using low definition, ¾ inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape, which was used by Chilean TV stations during the 1980s. This gives it a blurred look and tinny feel. It is a little off-putting, but allows the film makers to seemlessly insert archive footage from the era. Indeed, TV and political broadcast footage is how we mostly learn about the horrors of the Pinochet regime.

Directed by Chilean Pablo Larrain, NO is based on unpublished play El Plebiscito by Antonio Skármeta, whose earlier book Ardiente Paciencia was turned into the film Il Postino in 1994. Both films were nominated for Oscars – Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film respectively – and missed out (although Il Postino did pick up Best Music). Still, NO did get a couple of prestigious awards at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

Many critics have also said yes to NO, and I’d very much like to but just couldn’t. This is also despite being set in a fascinating period of history – the dreadful Pinochet regime is something more of us should know about. Its parts were undoubtedly positive, but these just didn’t add up to something that made me want to shout Yes.

NO will be available to rent and own on DVD, iTunes and the Curzon’s Home Cinema online shop ‘On Demand’ from 17 June.

Special features include:

  • Interview with Pablo Larrain
  • 56th BFI London Film Festival Says “Yes” to NO – Q&A with Pablo Larrain
  • In conversation with Gael Garcia Bernal and Eugenio Garcia (at Curzon, Soho)
  • No” to impunity interview for Amnesty International UK with Mariella Frostrup and Gael Garcia Bernal
  • Image Gallery

No packshot

See the trailer for No here:

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Rating: 2.0/5 (1 vote cast)
NO - Review, 2.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating