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'No' is a compelling Chilean history lesson

Posted 3:22pm on Thursday, Mar. 14, 2013

R (strong language); 118 min.

No is a Chilean drama about the 1988 election in which Chilean voters got to decide whether to retain or dismiss the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It was a yes or no vote -- or "Si" or "No." The film is a semifictional account of the "No" campaign, from its inception through the election.

At the center is Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal, in the composite role of Rene, a slick advertising man whose crucial insight is that the "No" campaign needs to be positive. For the first time ever, the Pinochet government is allowing for opposition advertising -- 15 minutes every night for almost four weeks -- and the impulse of every political dissident is to present a litany of the regime's horrors. But Rene insists on a future-based, upbeat campaign, associating the "No" vote with things like youth, rebellion and happiness. He wants to sell "No" the way he might sell a new soft drink.

No has some of the advantages of a documentary, in that it contains many of the actual commercials that were used in 1988, both "Si" and "No." The late 1980s was still pre-digital, so the blurred graininess makes the vintage of these advertisements apparent. The drama is just an added benefit, but it never quite rises to the level of compelling, and as a result, the movie loses a certain propulsion, here and there. Still, it always retains a level of interest, especially for those of us who don't remember -- or aren't old enough to remember -- which side won.

Bernal is quite good as the young media specialist -- it's always surprising to see how strong a presence the actor is in his Spanish-language films and how he all but disappears in his American films. Is it a matter of the roles or the language barrier? The jury is still out.

In Spanish with English subtitles.

Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano; opens March 29 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

-- Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

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