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Accentuating the positive in a powerful ‘No’

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‘NO’ ★★★½

Rene Gael Garcia Bernal

Lucho Alfredo Castro

Urrutia Luis Gnecco

Veronica Antonia Zegers

Carmen Elsa Poblete

Sony Pictures Classics presents a film directed by Pablo Larrain. Written by Pedro Peirano, based on the play by Antonio Skarmeta. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opening Friday at Landmark Century and Evanston CineArts 6.

Updated: April 9, 2013 11:06AM

Just say no. That slogan, coined by the Reagan administration as part of its war on drugs, made its way into American pop culture and even migrated into the minds of marketing geniuses worldwide.

That’s the takeaway from the Os­car-nominated “No,” director Pablo Larrain’s slyly comic film, based on actual events, about populist efforts to oust Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

International pressure against the strongman, who staged a coup in 1973, had forced him to proceed with a national plebsicite in 1988. Casting a yes or no ballot, voters would determine whether he would remain in office for another eight years.

Apathy ran high, due to Pinochet’s ruthless tactics to remain in power: 3,000 executions, more than 30,000 imprisonments and the occasional random beheading.

As “No” begins, opposition forces recruit an advertising wizard, Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Ber­nal), to help rally the populace. Rene quickly realizes that their campaign, which focuses on “los desaparecidos” and other evidence of Pinochet’s abuse, is going nowhere. Instead, he opts for an accentuate-the-positive approach, to draw in the most apolitical, “the young and the old women.” People like Rene’s housekeeper, Carmen, who just want to forget their nation’s brutal past.

Taking a page from the audacity-of-hope playbook, Rene creates a strategy based on the improbab­le slogan “La alegria ya viene” (“Happiness is coming”). And a rainbow logo, representing Chile’s opposition factions. (The logo initially causes confusion. “Gay Mapuches?” one guy asks, since it looks like the gay pride symbol and flag of a Chilean tribe.) Rene’s ads feature shiny happy people frolicking in the sun and proclaiming just say no to Pinochet — and yes to freedom.

For “No,” Larrain uses many of the actual ’88 commercials. About 30 percent of his film consists of archival footage, and to make the transitions seamless, he shot “No” on vintage Sony U-Matic video cameras.

As Rene, Garcia Bernal never errs and subtly delineates his character’s own eventual political awakening. At the office, he clashes with his boss, who’s working for the Yes men, and on the home front, he faces scorn from his activist ex-wife.

Ultimately, “No” is even more relevant than the similarly themed “Argo,” in which a mere six American hostages were liberated. In “No,” an entire nation of 6 million-plus throws off the yoke of political oppression.

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