CANNES, France -- Films with buzz at Cannes usually come from one of the official selection’s numerous sections, but this year one of the early popular favorites, and deservedly so, hails from the festival’s genial crosstown rival, the Directors’ Fortnight.
That would be the simply named “No,” directed by Chile’s Pablo Larrain, best known for his previous film, “Tony Manero.” Here he’s taken a little-remembered event in his country’s recent history and made it into a smart, involving, tangy film that mixes reality and drama to provocative effect.
In 1988, after 15 years of authoritarian rule, Chile’s leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, responded to international pressure by agreeing to hold a plebiscite on his rule. Each side, including the "No" forces, would get a rare 15 minutes of uncensored television time to state their case.
It is the conceit of Larrain’s film (screenplay by Pedro Peirano, based on a play) that the "No" TV spots, which in reality were done by committee, were in large part the idea of one advertising man -- Rene Saavedra.
Beautifully played by Gael Garcia Bernal, Saavedra has the counterintuitive idea of selling the "No" vote the same frothy, soft-focus way he would have sold a soft drink or a microwave oven.
But rather than embracing this subversive idea, everyone is against it, including Saavedra’s ad agency boss, his estranged and politically active wife, and the political coalition that is his client. And don’t even ask what happens when the Pinochet people start to understand his strategy.
Directed by Larrain in a confident, assured style, and benefitting from the use of the actual ads that ran in 1988, “No” is a most unusual underdog story, the kind of heady, relevant filmmaking we don’t see often enough at Cannes. Or anywhere else.
-- Kenneth Turan
Photo: Gael Garcia Bernal in "No." Credit: Cannes Film Festival