"No" is exactly the kind of film you hope to stumble across -- a film that hadn't been on your radar until buzz from too many quarters too diverse to be ignored made you seek it out, discovering a film that's extraordinarily well-made, superbly acted, funny, human, warm, principled and, yes, as enthrallingly entertaining as it is fiercely moral and intelligent. Set in Chile in 1988, "No" stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Réne, a "creative" at an ad agency. At the start of the film, he's explaining to a group of clients how this spot he's about to show them represents the new, young feeling of Chile, and how it's in tune with the youth of that country and their needs. And then he rolls … a soda commercial, full of shoulderpad-wearing rockers, exultant crowds of youth and a mime.
We often talk about the marketplace of ideas, but that phrase also implies that ideas can, regardless of their actual worth, occasionally use a little marketing. Most of the time advertising is about selling people something they don't need. How can you sell them something that they should want? "No" isn't afraid to make fun of advertising -- one soda exec asks early on, "Why is there a fucking mime in my commercial?", proving that some things are universal -- and it also precisely nails the '80s tone of the ads recreated for the film, mingled in with actual ads and footage from the day.
If "No" were just a look at advertising used for the public good, or simply recreated the pop and political culture of a time both far and near (at one point, Christopher Reeve, Jane Fonda and Richard Dreyfuss plug for the "No" side; the sweater-vests, headbands and bad Video Toaster edits and dissolves of the recreated ads are perfect) it would be an impressive feat. But Bernal's performance -- as Réne slowly becomes conscious, then becomes terrified and finally realizes that he's been a vital part of something important, carrying his son through the streets as his nation changes -- is superb, and gives the film a human heart.
There's paranoia here, and the risk of brutal violence from the powers-that-be, but it's handled with the same light yet threatening touch as similar moments in "The Insider." There aren't mustache-twirling bad guys after our ad men, just phone calls in the night and cars parked nearby that suspiciously start up as you get in your vehicle. Larrain's matter-of-fact approach to the realities of Chile under Pinochet, when what you wanted to buy was in the shops but you couldn't vote, is insidiously creepy, and one of the high notes of the film is watching Bernal slowly realize that his privileged life comes at a price of complicity he's paid bit by bit for years without thinking.
Superbly shot, full of human characters (Castro's scenes are superlative, even sympathetic, as he talks with the power-brokers of the regime about advertising's realities), depicting a galvanizing true story while also showing us the hearts and lives of the people on both sides of the vote, "No" is one of the breakout films of Cannes. As wonderful as it was to find it here, the only thing to regret is that it isn't in the main competition where it deserves to be. It would be one thing if "No" merely showed how 30-second TV ads can change people's minds; what makes it a masterwork is how it shows how once, in one place and at one time, 30-second TV ads changed people's worlds, and the world, and for the better. [A]