In "No," 34-year-old Guadalajara-born actor and filmmaker Gael Garcia Bernal plays a cocky Santiago, Chile, advertising man who has thrived under the economic policies of the nation's U.S.-backed ruler, Augusto Pinochet. Asked to concoct a TV advertising campaign to bring down Pinochet in the 1988 plebiscite, he's intrigued — not necessarily because he's a stealth radical (though his father, we're told, was sent into political exile to Mexico) but because the "no" vote is deemed by many to be an impossible product to sell to a wary populace.
It's a shrewd, buoyant movie about advertising and psychology, and to the degree (which is considerable) that Bernal anchors "No," it's also about the value of doing very little on screen.
Bernal lets the viewer come to him. Best known for "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Babel" and "The Motorcycle Diaries," the actor expresses a kind of ebullience even in repose. It's useful for playing the fictional character of Rene Saavedra in "No," whose ex-wife (Antonia Zegers) is a firebrand and a leftist in frequent trouble with the police. Rene is different: a company man, hard to read, but someone you'd want on your side, if you're trying to make a rattled citizenry feel good about the prospect of ousting an iron-fisted patriarch.
We talked last fall in Toronto during the international film festival. "No" had already triumphed at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Directors' Fortnight sidebar. "These days," Bernal said, "in the Middle East and everywhere, everyone's talking about democracy, the value of it. I think the film will have a good life."
It already has. Though it lost to "Amour," "No" was one of the five nominees in the foreign-language feature category at the Academy Awards. Rene, he said, is a character of no fixed ideology. "One of his traits is that there's a mystery there, an ambivalence. We never really know why he's doing what he's doing. I like that about the film. It pays tribute to the ambiguities and the gray areas of democracy, you know? It's not about having absolute certainty; it's about asking the difficult questions."
The actor, who divides his time between Mexico and Buenos Aires, Argentina, wonders if American politics, from his perspective, has much to do with everyday life. (Then again, any time spent in Hollywood is time not really spent in America.) "In Latin America politics affects everything," he said. "Even the uses of language are interesting. For example there is this term 'charity work' I hear in America all the time. In our countries, though, it's called 'social responsibility.' Which is very different."
In its close-to-the-ground shooting style and dynamic approach to historical fiction, "No" resembles this year's big Oscar winner, "Argo." "Even though I'm not Chilean I felt like it was my story as well," Bernal said of "No." "It's completely Latin. It's important that we tell stories about the polarization that exists, the crimes of the recent past, the questions we all face as a people. And yet there is a lightness to the film."
Who'd have thought it? Quality sells.