No: Pablo Larrain’s Chilean Political Drama, Starring Gael Garcia Bernal

Cannes Film Fest 2012 (Directors’ Fortnight)-The work of the gifted Chilean director Pablo Larrain is still little known in the U.S. But that may change with the release of his new film, “No,” by the estimable Sony Classics.

World premiering at the Cannes Film Fest (in Directors’ Fortnight), “No” was a highlight, and far more interesting than at least half a dozen pictures that played in the Main Competition.

Elevating the visibility of “No” is Gael Garcia Bernal, who had appeared in English-speaking as well non-English speaking films that have made a mark, such as Walter Salles’ “The Motorcycle Diaries” or Almodovar’s “Bad Education.”

In the fact-inspired political drama “No,” he is cast as a brilliant Chilean ad man who played an instrumental role in ousting the Pinochet regime.

Sony Classics will release this intriguing feature after showing at the N.Y. Film Festival, which has also exhibited Larrain’s “Tony Manero” and “Post Mortem,” which form sort of a trilogy dealing 2ith various aspects of the Pinochet dictatorship.

More specifically, “No” is an account of the political factors that led to Chile’s democratically elected administration in 1988, its first in 17 years.

Flaunting his charm and charisma, Garcia Bernal is credibly cast as the eccentric, highly skillful advertising guru who spearheaded the eventual winning campaign.

As uncompromising director, Larrain has chosen a suitable, deliberately unattractive and murky visual style for his tough tale, collaborating with the cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, using a video camera from the early 1980s, which lends authentic look to the era and its events. This is supplemented with extensive archival footage, including the period’s TV spots for both the Yes and No ideological camps.

Though adapted by Pedro Peirano from Antonio Skarmetas play titled “Referendum,” “No” doesn’t reveal its origins, unfolding as a uniquely cinematic work.

For dramatic purposes, the story plays loose with the facts, most evident in Bernal’s character, René Saavedra , which the director had said in the press conference is a composite of two men who took risks in the anti-regime No campaign. The real-life men make cameo appearances.

Introduced through an American-style commercial for Free cola, Rene flaunts his youthful, rebellious persona (and politics). Things change foir him (and the country), when he is asked to work on the No campaign by Urrutia, an avid socialist. After some understandable doubts and hesitations, he agrees.

Early on, René’s estranged wife Veronica (Antonia Zegers), who’s a known leftist radical, expresses her doubts about the validity of the exercise. But, influenced by the politics of his dissident father, and listening to the dictates of his heart, if not mind, Rene joins the effort.

There are obstacles along the way: For starters, the head of Rene’s ad agency boss, Lucho Guzman (Alfredo Castro), supports the Pinochet regime.

However, unfazed, René assembles some committed collaborators, including his mentor (Nestor Cantillana), who fearfully remains behind the scenes, and a more courageous cameraman (Marcial Tagle).

Throughout the suspenseful chronicle, Larrain charts the tensions, the concern about reprecusions, Rene’s grounded worries about the security of his own son (Pascal Montero).

It is a testament to Larrain’s skills as director that “No” is effective as both political thriller (a la Costa-Gavras’ “Z) and an uplifting message feature, with plenty a lesson of how democratic and grass roots mobilization can play a major roles in campaigns to unseat dictatorial and authoritarian regimes, such as those prevailing in the Middle East.

We live in politically charged times, with Presidential Elections set for November, though you won’t know it from mainstream Hollywood or American independent cinema. Far superior to the Cannes Competition entry, Yousry Nasrallah’s “After the Battle,” a melodrama about Egypt’s “Political Spring,” “No” should be seen for its ideological as well as artistic merits.

Oscar Context:

No was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, but did not win. The winner that year was Michael Haneke’s Amour.