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Gael Garcia Bernal’s television adman-turned-political-commercial-creator Rene Saavedra is such an ethically ambiguous and passive protagonist that “No” falls flat as a piece of wannabe agitprop cinema. Director Pablo Larrain continues his ongoing study of Pinochet-ruled '70s-era Chile — behind “Tony Manero” (2008) and “Post Mortem” (2010) with an airy statement about the power of the television commercial formula. This lackluster film is based on a stage play, “Referendum” by Antonio Skarmeta.
Rene is the fence-sitting son of a famous Chilean dissident exiled after the C.I.A. assassinates democratically elected President Salvador Allende in a coup, leading to the rise of Augusto Pinochet, a brutal despot. The terrible treatment his father endured has cowed Rene into utter submission under a corrupt system he can barely begin to fathom.
Dictatorial governance begets dictatorial interpersonal relations. After leaving his job making television soft drink commercials, Rene takes on the personality of mini-tyrant over his creative team, which is assigned to design and produce a 15-minute political segment capable of convincing the public to vote “no” against Pinochet in an upcoming referendum.
Pinochet's goons deploy various intimidation tactics against Rene and his staff. Even Rene’s separated wife and son come under attack from the dictator's relentless crew of thugs. Still, nothing polarizes the cowardly Rene into any action beyond the immediate demands of his job. He’s a corporate shill married more to keeping his weekly paycheck than to standing up and fighting when the situation demands it.
While the film’s production standards are high, the narrative is as unsatisfying as they come. It’s impossible to empathize with a protagonist who lacks balls. Rene Saavedra is one of the most impotent examples of a freedom fighter you'll find anywhere in cinema. With friends like this, leftists don’t need more enemies.
Rated R. 110 mins.