NO's Gael Garcia Bernal strolls past riot policeWere it not for the high stakes and tyrannical violence surrounding the historical event, Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s “NO” could just as easily been played for comedy. But it is a tense drama — just a darkly funny one.

This is the story about the 1988 plebiscite where Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet, under international pressure including from his American ally, called for a vote on his rule. The country was to vote YES or NO to Pinochet extending his presidency for another eight years.

It was a vote everyone figure was rigged anyway.

What ended up happening, according to this film, was a skateboarding advertising hotshot, Rene Saavedra — played by Mexican superstar Gael Garcia Bernal — orchestrated a political campaign throwing the regime’s own neoliberal capitalism and symbols back at them to win the election.

Expecting furious, self-righteous propaganda against a dictator responsible for the deaths of thousands, instead the puzzled regime is confronted by jingles, a rainbow graphic and bright smiles in a “Mad Men”-like campaign promising “happiness.”

All the center-left coalition was really doing was promising a better, nicer future. There is no little irony — or humor — in this.

In No Chilean military officers chat at partyTo be sure, the writer-director notices and makes use of the comedic moments. He even engineers his screenplay so that the head of the regime’s campaign is Rene’s own boss at a hip ad agency, Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro).

The film, which debuted in Cannes in the Directors Fortnight sidebar rather than in Competition where it decidedly belonged, is Chile’s nominated film for the Academy’s best foreign language film. This is a well deserved honor.

I only question Larrain’s strategy of deliberately making “No” such an ugly looking film. The reasons, I assume, are twofold.

It certainly was an ugly time, both for Chile and human rights. Philosophically and aesthetically, the filmmaker clearly wants the viewer to suffer too as he watches such wrenching inhumanity.

Larrain also wants his visuals to match the washed-out archival footage from that era he uses. Toward that end, he employs the same aspect ratio of the ’80s footage, an almost square 4:3.

Fine, so far, but he has d.p. Sergio Armstrong point his hand-held cameras, apparently a pair of rebuilt U-matic video cameras from that era, into light sources so that flashes and flairs are everywhere.

Once you get past eye-soreness, these effects do, perversely enough, put you into the mix with the No Campaign.

NO's Gael Garcia Bernal in front of rainbow advertising artRene’s strategies are challenged by political colleagues as an affront to the lost lives attributed to the Pinochet regime. Even his estranged wife, Verónica (António Zegers), fervently believes the referendum is rigged and so accuses him of collaborating with the regime by participating in the whole charade.

Bernal’s character is a beguiling protagonist. He has grown up abroad — apparently the son of a dissident in exile —and never suffered under the dictatorship; indeed he may have taken advantage of the regime’s pro-capitalist policies to achieve success as an ad exec.

So he is under suspicion from his colleagues in the coalition. For one thing, his objections to a more virulent anti-Pinochet campaign aren’t political; rather he feels they are a “drag” — they bore him.

Indeed it wasn’t easy to persuade him to betray, in a sense, his own class comfort by joining the No effort. Seemingly, the challenge for him is the campaign itself and not its intended result.

This makes “NO” one of the more realistic political thrillers in recent years. It portrays all its characters with subtlety and depth from Rene and his frustrated, increasingly angered boss — who nonetheless continues to work side by side with Rene in their day jobs promoting soft drinks and soap operas — to a leftist friend (Luis Gnecco) of his father’s who recruits him.

There is also something very real in the sad fact that logical arguments don’t win political debates or elections. Sloganeering and advertising do.

Opens: February 15, 2013 L.A., NYC (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: Fabula, Participant Media, Canana, Funny Balloons
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Luis Gnecco, Marcial Tagle, Nastor Cantillana, Jaime Vadell, Pascal Montero
Director/screenwriter: Pablo Larrain
Based on the play by: Antonio Skarmeta
Producers: Juan de Dios Larrain, Daniel Dreifuss
Executive producers: Jeff Skoll, Jonathan King
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Estefania Larrain
Costume designer:
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
R rating, 110 minutes