Larrain sells the children of Marx and Pepsi

Enough time has lapsed since the punishing left/right combo of Allende/Pinochet flattened Chile that filmmaker Pablo Narrain’s generation can rise from the canvas and spit out some wistful irony.

No with Garcia BernalNo finds it aplenty in imaging a fictional advertising agency—the quintessential sign of advanced capitalism—that handled the very real television campaign in the run up to the 1988 referendum in which Chileans voted on whether Pinochet should get another eight years, leading the “No” vote to an improbable victory for Chile’s left against apparently unwarranted fears of Pinochet reprisals or a return to Allende’s nightmare of property theft and bread lines.

Intermixing fact and fiction, the “No”-campaign Communists recruit an appropriately 30 Something creative director and reluctantly radical family man René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), figuring he’d want payback for something Pinochet’s henchmen had done to his father. But René has touched the wind of capitalist freedom, skateboarding back and forth to the agency, a clever reference to the influence of American pop such as Back to the Future, likely an opening-up of Antonio Skarmeta’s play by Larrain and screenwriter Pedro Perrano. René’s on the verge of being made a partner and has symbols of ersatz modernity, revolutionary microwave ovens, to sell. He fears for the son he’s raising apart from his estranged, leftist wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), and with some 17 parties vying for attention, each granted 15 minutes of TV air time a night to make their cases in the weeks before the plebiscite, this Marty McFly sees no future in backsliding with a futile and politically haunting gesture.

Finally, of course, René’s all in, imploring his new humorless and vengeful clients to reject a recitation of Pinochet’s crimes as something that “won’t sell.” Instead, he recycles his brief from a soft drink campaign (suggesting the too suggestive Pepsi Free) pitching the sunny hope that “happiness is coming.” Brand “No” would be an effervescent invitation to show that “Chile thinks in the future.” Just as the Free-brand soda would appeal to the “young, brave, rebellious—but with order and respect”—an awfully funny qualification, the commercial cliché bottled up in political trepidation—the “No” campaign would demonstrate (Michael) Jacksonian Democracy: “We are the world…pragmatic, but with ethical limits,” René says.

The No campaign lurches along almost comically with an already retro rainbow logo, saccharine commercials featuring frolicking picnicking and exuberant urban youth, and a music video featuring Communist workers in the style of “Look for the Union label,” singing about “emotive verse” with “tenacious smiles.” Whether that’s a propaganda parody or a poor translation, it’s the funniest moment of the movie, either way.

In contrast, Pinochet’s team, led by Rene’s boss Lucho (Alfredo Castro) takes LBJ’s heavy-handed “Daisy” approach, showing a child’s stroller being run over by a steamroller. The constant monitoring and outright threat of Pinochet’s operatives to René’s team seems credibly measured in light of real inter (ad) agency espionage. Their tagline: “Think.” Before long, Chile is suddenly receptive to American intervention—by Hollywood celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Christopher Reeve, and Richard Dreyfuss, who may have known nothing more about Chile than what Costa-Gavras instructed them to think in Missing (1982), but show up to support the return of the socialism they love in the abstract from their penthouses on Central Park West and Malibu plantations tended by stooping Mexicans. After that flattering appeal to Chilean voters, it’s all over but the counting, leaving the effect of the campaign dubious at best.

Godard, who identified “the children of Marx and Coca-Cola” in his 1966 film Masculin-Feminin, might approve of No’s Marx-and-Pepsi-Cola treatment—which he would likely handle with more sophistication and less simplistic irony—while condemning the unfortunate ugliness of the film or, more precisely, its recreation of a period-video look, probably by utilization of mothballed video cameras. The execrable images can only be intended as a misbegotten attempt to match documentary footage, an arty comment on collective memory and historically impoverished means of production, or the centrality of television imagery to the campaign. But the historical commercial work looks better than the original production conceit. In one scene, Narrain throws a film camera in the background as a prop, and one wishes he’d rented it, capitalist style.