After taking control of Chile in a coup that ousted the socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973, General Augusto Pinochet’s regime became infamous for its political repression, with tens of thousands exiled, tortured, killed or ‘disappeared’.
After foreign pressure began to mount on Chile, particularly from the US and from the Pope, in 1988 Pinochet agreed to hold a referendum on an eight year continuation of his rule. Laws restricting political advertising were relaxed and it was agreed that in the 27 days leading up to the vote, each side would be given 15 minutes of TV airtime to present their case.
Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, a successful advertising executive in a flourishing agency. Whereas swathes of the Chilean population have seen their income fall dramatically, Rene lives in his own house, wears nice clothes and drives a sports car.
However, Rene’s father has been forced into exile, and when he is approached to run the ‘No’ campaign, Rene feels compelled to help, despite being fully aware of the possible consequences for him, his son, and even his estranged wife.
Many within Chile believe winning a ‘No’ vote in the referendum is impossible, fearing the regime will fix the result, and those voting against Pinochet's regime will face repercussions. Others believe that even engaging in the referendum validates and even endorses a regime built on terror and violence.
While many on the Left believe Rene’s ‘No’ campaign should remind voters of the many evils of the junta, Rene believes a positive campaign will be more effective. Despite opposition from his own side, he helps craft a series of adverts with the theme ‘La alegría ya viene’ (Happiness Is Coming). It’s a theme that connects with the electorate, but one that draws increasing attention to the campaign from the secret police.
It’s rare to see a film about advertising that doesn’t involve some amoral, cravat-wearing buffoon selling overpriced, unnecessary products to people who neither need nor can afford them. Rene isn’t selling a future that involves amassing stuff, merely a future without oppression, fear and violence. And it’s a message that will put him, his family, and his colleagues in danger.
Despite being hampered by a Google-unfriendly title, this is a worthy Oscar contender, featuring yet another excellent performance from Bernal alongside able support from Alfredo Castro as Lucho, Rene’s nefarious regime-supporting boss.
Director Pablo Larrain’s decision to shoot the film on a 1980s u-matic camera, gives his drama a wonderfully effective, authentic, grainy and gritty look, and it allows him to cut seamlessly in and out of actual news footage.
However, it does take a little getting used to, like watching a full screen video on YouTube.
Once you have adjusted to the documentary style though, you will be rewarded with a terrific and thrilling drama about the power of hope, of optimism, and of bravery in the face of intimidation, and very real and extreme physical danger.
It certainly gets our vote.