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"It'll have you leaving the theater singing!" is the kind of hacky quote you might see on the poster for a Broadway musical, but I swear to God, it happened to me after one of the best films I've seen at this year's Toronto Film Festival. I walked into Pablo Larrain's No knowing pretty much three things: it starred Gael Garcia Bernal, it was somehow about the dictator Pinochet, and I knew absolutely nothing about Pinochet. There was also some kind of word of good buzz about it from the Cannes Film Festival, but you probably assume that means the same thing I did-- it would be an important but possibly stiff and serious story about politics in a South American country, rewarding but probably difficult to sit through.

What I got, though, was some hybrid of an election thriller and all the best episodes of Mad Men, with that aforementioned music that's been an unforgettable jingle ever since. Gael Garcia Bernal plays a fictionalized version of the man who created this ad, an advertising executive named Rene Saavedra who we meet in the first scene trying to sell a soda company on a similarly energetic, youthful ad. He's not especially politically engaged, and seems estranged from his wife specifically because of her leftist leanings. But eventually Pinochet, who took over the country in a military coup in 1973, is brought up for a public referendum, in which the electorate will be given a chance to vote "Yes" to keep him in power, or "No" to democratically elect someone else. Rene is asked to consult on the "No" campaign, partly because of his own father's reputation among leftist politicians, and like any good movie hero, he soon finds himself engaged in the campaign more than he ever expected.

No announces itself as a very unusual political thriller in a very jarring way at first. The entire film is shot on Betamax, the video format commonly used on television in the late 1980s when No takes place, but which of course looks like crap compared to film or modern digital video. The format allows director Pablo Larrain to effortlessly weave in TV broadcasts and ads from the time, but it takes some serious getting used to-- characters have a purple haze around them at times, the focus is often off, and intimate scenes have the surreal feeling that they're being broadcast on the evening news. At the same time, it makes No feel like it's sliced directly out of the era, and when we see Rene and his team shooting the ad above, the recreation of the behind-the-scenes action is spot on; by pulling you forcibly into the past with the format, Larrain makes all these events from decades ago feel unavoidably current.

That also adds a great tension to the film's climax, which is even more thrilling if, like me, you're way in the dark about your Chilean history. Bernal's centered, engaging leading man performance gives the movie an excellent emotional center-- his troubled relationship with his wife and devotion to his son help too-- but No also allows fantastic moments of humor, in both the spy games the No and Yes campaigns play against each other and the often ridiculous process of filming a TV ad. I haven't seen Ben Affleck's Argo here at TIFF, but No has a lot of the tension, excellent ensemble acting and political relevance others have praised that film for. And with a release coming from Sony Pictures Classics later this year, No could easily find itself in the Oscar race as well. It's finely tuned entertainment and an awesome historical lesson, even for those who don't know a damn thing walking in.
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