NO directed by Pablo Larraín, screenplay by Pedro Peirano based on a play by Antonio Skármeta, with Gael García Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers and Luis Gnecco. A Mongrel Media release. 117 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (March 15). For venues and times, see listings.
Gael García Bernal was nine years old and living in Mexico when the people of Chile stood up to dictator Augusto Pinochet in a 1988 referendum. Now the actor - best known to North American audiences for his work in Y Tu Mamá También, The Motorcycle Diaries and maybe Blindness - stars in Pablo Larraín's political satire No as an advertising whiz recruited to persuade terrorized Chileans to vote against their oppressor.
Arriving for a round table at the Toronto Film Festival, the gregarious García Bernal quickly deflects my apologies for not being more familiar with the story of the referendum.
"I knew that there was a big movement that overthrew Pinochet, that there were elections and they managed to chuck him out," he says. "But I didn't know the big part that publicity played. Nobody knows about that. There was a lot of political groundwork being done to convince people to register, to go and vote, but the publicity campaign was the one that turned things around. It gave people hope."
One fascinating fact about the Chilean referendum was that the vote was close. Many Chileans still supported Pinochet, even a decade and a half after his military coup. García Bernal doesn't agree with that side, but he understands how people could take it.
"Mostly, it is out of fear," he says. "It's fear of the unknown, it's fear of speaking out. Sometimes it's better if somebody organizes certain things for you and you don't have so much choice. It's fear of choice, really; the fear of being self-reliant and being able to make decisions for yourself, which is quite scary, you know?"
No is set a quarter-century in the past, but García Bernal says the film is utterly relevant to the here and now.
"Democracy is the biggest issue talked about in the whole world," he says, citing the Arab Spring and recent elections in Europe. "All the parties that have won won [with] a punishing vote. It's not that [the victors] promised something great or different. I mean, in Spain, in France, in England, it's the opposition that's going to win - without any formal platform, you know? It's a vote of rejection."
I bring up Rob Ford and the wave of suburban resentment and cynicism that won him the mayoralty in 2010. García Bernal nods eagerly.
"We're experiencing that all over the world, and that is something this film taps into," he says. "Elections have become incredibly superficial. You now see a person talking to an empty chair and things like that. It's become a big, big show, and we have to be a little bit cynical about it.
"We don't have to take it seriously, because if we take it seriously we get heartbroken all the time."