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Review: ‘No’ entertains despite its odd dramatization

No, a movie from Chile about advertising and dictators (in that order), is another bit of magical realism from Latin America.

Augusto Pinochet, the general who overthrew Salvador Allende in 1973, for what now seem to be inexplicable reasons, including public opinion, held a referendum on his dictatorship in 1988. Everyone expected him to win. A “yes” vote meant more years of Pinochet, and a “no,” from which the movie gets its title, meant an eventual return to democracy. The general lost.

That the general’s fall was due to advertising is a dramatization, and an odd one at that. But the movie, directed by Pablo Larrain, born in Chile to a political family, is more entertaining because of it. A similar one by, say, Costa-Gavras, who directed State of Siege, would have been heavy-handed. And there is whimsy. The jokes about rainbows, baguettes and short people are reminiscent of Francois Truffaut — if Truffaut had been politically engaged.

The movie is also helped by its star, Gael Garcia-Bernal, the Mexican actor best known for Y Tu Mama Tambien. His character, Rene Saavedra (who shares a name with Cervantes), is befuddled and apolitical, at least compared to his activist wife, played by Antonia Zegers. Rene is, however, a savant at advertising (he’s good with consumer products). In the end, Rene’s campaign works (there’s a jingle about happiness) and a framing device involves a soft drink and a mime.

The film incorporates documentary footage of Christopher Reeves, Richard Dreyfuss and Jane Fonda appearing on Chilean television for the no votes. There is some routine thuggery by government agents and police, but nothing like that of the real Chile.

As it is, No, like Chilean wine, is a good vintage which, for better or worse, reminds you of Europe.