NO-Poster No is an engrossing, behind-the-scenes period docu-drama from Chilean director Pablo Larrain, revolving around the pivotal 1988 referendum to usurp dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mama Tambien) stars as Rene Saavedra, a talented and sought-after ad-man who is poached to lead the creative team behind the NO campaign. Despite pressures up the hierarchy, Rene wasn’t interested in provoking fear or bombarding viewers with the images presenting the negatives of the Pinochet regime, believing a happy, upbeat and colourful tone was the key to winning over the people. Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro), Rene’s Boss, and his YES associates view his siding as traitorous and foolish, but Rene accepts the challenge to convince an oppressed nation that the future will be defined by positivity.

The film conveys that during this period it was less political activism, and more marketing and popular media campaigning, ideas courtesy of the country’s advertising visionaries. The campaign took place over 27 nights of television advertisements, in which each side had 15 minutes to present its point of view. With the NO’s approach taking the YES team by surprise, they become increasingly desperate, often simply replicating the NO’s advertisements and subverting them for their own agenda.

No is not just a privileged insight into the tumultuous period of Chilean politics and social upheaval, but also a fascinating look into the advertising industry itself - the daily decision-making, the battle of ideas and point-of-view within the creative team, and obstacles such as censorship and political involvement. Understandably, Larrain has decided to focus exclusively on the role the television spot had on Pinochet’s defeat, but no doubt there were other influences on the outcome. Larrain is not making a documentary here, but a narrative-driven account from a unique POV, which appears to be assimilated with actual events. It takes only a lengthy shot of Rene’s face during the announcement to convey just how unexpected the result, and how revolutionary this campaign was.

No is challenging and aesthetically inventive, working as an inspirational, power-to-the-people story, while remaining entertaining. There are recurring visual gags and humorous elements that complement the film’s tensions in surprisingly effortless ways. Larrain’s eye for detail, and a particularly innovative aesthetic decision was his use of the 4:3 ratio and low def Sony U-matic magnetic tape, which I believe was used for Chilean television news during the 1980’s. This made the archived footage from the time and the scripted sequences with Bernal difficult to differentiate between in appearance, and the latter all the more convincing. A nuanced central performance from Bernal ensured he built a humble but confident hero we wholeheartedly care about, fear for and applaud.

NO is a sublime artistic recreation of how one man's bold vision and optimism turned the tide for the people of Chile during a period of political and social oppression. 

[rating=4] and a half

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

No was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy Awards, representing Chile, and won the top prize at the Director’s Fortnight at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It hits Australian cinemas April 18.

Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.