Gael Garcia Bernal as René Saavedra in the Sony Pictures Classics film "No".
Gael García Bernal anchors the film as the materialistic, half-bright but ultimately goodhearted René

Photo by Tomás Dittburn/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Pablo Larraín’s No, the story of a Chilean advertising executive who half-unwillingly joins forces with a campaign to oust dictator Augusto Pinochet, was one of the nominees for this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar. In a year when there was only one foreign film on everyone’s lips—Michael Haneke’s austere old-age drama, Amour—it’s not surprising that No, a sly political satire with a deliberately scruffy visual aesthetic, neither won the prize nor got a lot of Oscar-season attention. (Did we even get an audience-reaction shot of Gael García Bernal in a tux? And if so, can someone please send me a GIF?) But I really hope No’s nomination helps get people into theaters to see it, because it may be the best movie I’ve seen this year—although given the quality of most January and February releases, that feels like wan praise. Put it this way: There will have to be a hell of a lot of good movies released in 2013 for No not to make my list of the year’s 10 best.

What I love about No is how seriously it takes the humor of its premise. Larraín (who also directed Tony Manero, a bizarre but unforgettable character study of a John Travolta-obsessed loner in Pinochet-era Santiago) is interested in the parallels between commercial advertising and political propaganda. But Larraín’s aim isn’t limited to pointing out those parallels and then encouraging us to laugh hollowly at the crassness of modern consumer society. Instead, the film explores the productive tensions between two competing sets of assumptions about mass media: The rebels’ passionate belief that simply telling the grim truth about the Pinochet regime will be enough to mobilize public sentiment against it, and the ad exec’s pragmatic conviction that such truths tend to go down better with an extra-large spoonful of sugar.

The movie opens in 1988, when Pinochet—who had been installed in a coup with the help of the CIA 15 years earlier—decided to shore up his international legitimacy by holding a plebiscite election to decide whether he should continue as president. Though there was widespread suspicion the election would be rigged, it nonetheless served as an opportunity for the Chilean resistance to marshal public opinion: The Pinochet regime agreed to give the opposition 15 minutes of time per night on state-run television to make its case for the dictator to step down. 

After dispensing with this historical setup in a few cleverly designed title cards, the movie introduces us to René Saavedra (Bernal), the son of a Chilean dissident long exiled in Mexico. Now back in Santiago, René is working as a well-paid “creative” at a large ad agency. When we first meet him, he’s showing some clients an ad campaign for a soft drink called Free. His pitch is interrupted by leftist organizer José Tomás Urrutia (Chilean TV star and Tom Wilkinson look-alike Luis Gnecco), a contemporary of his father, who’s trying to recruit him to design the campaign for the resistance movement’s nightly 15 minutes of fame. Meanwhile, René’s boss at the ad agency (Alfredo Castro, or, as Tony Manero viewers will shout in unison, “Tony Manero!”) is hired as a consultant for the other side. René’s lack of interest in politics is matched only by his lack of comprehension of it—asked by his boss if he’s a Communist, he responds indignantly, “No! I’m … the other one?” He’s more motivated by the prospect of winning back his ex-wife (Antonia Zegers), who comes over almost nightly to tuck in their son—and who’s actively involved in the political struggle he’s being paid to package and sell.

What ensues is a darkly hilarious volley of escalating rhetoric from both sides, as the drama among the real-life players alternates with long excerpts from the nightly propaganda battle on television. This middle section masterfully weaves archival footage into fiction, a commingling that’s enabled in part by the fact that Larraín shot the whole film on washed out, cruddy-looking ’80s-era video that matches the visual style of the clips. The catchy “We Are the World”-style anthem René commissions from a jingle writer for the campaign really did exist, as did the manically upbeat music video that goes along with it. What we see are imagined behind-the-scenes moments during the making of these Chilean cultural landmarks, as René contends with poor shooting conditions, shoestring budgets, and the dismay of his colleagues on the campaign. Some of the more militant leftists leave the cause in disgust at his saccharine, populist, and politically empty strategies for mass outreach. It’s not torture exposés or interviews with the families of desaparecidos that will win their side victory, he insists, but rainbow T-shirts, upbeat platitudes, and sexy girls.

García Bernal anchors the film as the materialistic, half-bright but ultimately goodhearted René. Like the younger Brad Pitt, he is one of those actors who’s so outrageously beautiful he rarely gets the chance to play ordinary dudes, even though it’s a style of character he happens to excel at. Sporting a scraggly mullet with a little rat-tail at the back, his relatively small stature left more apparent than it is in most of his movies, García Bernal gets to tests his range as a comic actor. He proves to be not only consistently hilarious, but also able to pivot on a dime from comedy to drama as the tension between the regime and the resistance, and between René and his ex-wife, heat up in the movie’s last act.

No has been a highly controversial film in its country of origin, for reasons that recall the debate about Argo and its representation of the Iran hostage crisis. Many who were involved on the ground with the Chilean resistance in 1988 feel that the movie warped history by exaggerating the importance of this particular ad campaign, and advertising in general, in the eventual success of the movement. And Larraín himself—who, though he was still a child when the regime ended, is the son of a well-known right-wing politician and businessman—has been criticized for trivializing real-life political struggle by turning it into comedy. As a non-Chilean, I can only say that this portrait of a slick salesman who turns crisis into opportunity strikes me as anything but opportunistic and slick. It’s the rare political satire that can sound the depths of irony as No does and still end on a note of ambivalent hope.