RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Advertisers move consumers to buy soda and cars. They're not known for ousting dictators. But that's what happens in a new movie based on a real life ad campaign in Chile. In it, a hot shot ad man becomes a prime mover in the successful campaign that removed Generalisimo Augusto Pinochet from power. The movie is called "No." It's up for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and it opens today in New York and L.A. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Director Pablo Larrain says "No" is the tale of the ad campaign that helped convince Chileans to cast their ballots against Augusto Pinochet in a national referendum.

PABLO LARRAIN: This is an epic story. This is a story of a triumph. It's how they defeat a dictator, probably one of the biggest bastards that we ever had in human kind.

BARCO: A CIA-backed coup d'etat in 1973 got Pinochet into power. And By 1988, he'd been Chile's dictator for 15 years, ruling with his violent military junta. Under his repressive regime, tens of thousands of Chileans were disappeared, tortured and killed, and hundreds of thousands were forced into exile.

LARRAIN: Pinochet felt himself as a god. As the chosen one.

BARCO: Larrain says Pinochet bowed to international pressures, and agreed to legitimize his power in the form of a plebiscite. A Yes vote would mean yes, I want Pinochet to stay in power, or no, I don't want Pinochet in power, I want free elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) No, no, no, no. No. No. No.

BARCO: "No" is a somewhat true story, using archival footage and fictionalized characters. The film is adapted from a play written by Antonio Skarmeta. He's the Chilean novelist whose work was the basis for the movie "Il Postino."

Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays former exile Rene Saavedra, a fictionalized character who gets convinced to make TV commercials for the No Campaign. They had to meet in secret, and were sometimes followed and threatened. Garcia Bernal says they had a tough assignment, getting people to oppose a leader who had terrorized them for so many years.

GAEL GARCIA BERNAL: They had to develop a new narrative, in a sense, so as to convince people to go out and vote, knowing that they were going to vote for no. But go out and vote, meaning that they were going to have to trust the elections, thinking that Pinochet was not going to rig the elections and was not going to change or, how do you say, accept the results.

BARCO: In the film, the No Campaign has to try to convince people like Senora Carmen, a housekeeper, who says she's going to vote yes. She says all the people who were disappeared, tortured and killed: Those are things in the past, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO")

ELSA POBLETE: (as Senora Carmen) (Spanish spoken)

BARCO: Now my General says we have democracy. Rene also faces skepticism from Pinochet's revolutionary opponents, including his recently separated wife. She tells him that voting in the plebiscite will only validate Pinochet's fraudulent referendum.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As wife) (Spanish spoken)

BARCO: Still, every night for a month leading up to the vote, the No Campaign is given 15 minutes on late-night TV to make their case. Garcia Bernal's character is a hot shot advertising man more accustomed to pitching soda than democracy. He urges the coalition to ditch the grim images reminding Chileans of their years of suffering.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO")

BERNAL: (as Rene Saavedra) (Spanish spoken)

BARCO: I don't think that sells, he tells them. But joy and hope, he says: That's what Chile needs. He comes up with a positive message. And a jingle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish)

BARCO: The movie uses the real TV campaign for the "No" vote. It ended up looking like a 1970's Coca Cola commercial. People from all walks of life - students, workers, families, mimes dance and smile and sing that Happiness is on its way.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish)

BARCO: Director Larrain says the message was simple, but direct.

LARRAIN: Finally they were just proposing something that was just bright and rainbows. And people, they were just dancing. And it was just so fresh.

BARCO: Larrain was just 12 years old in 1988. But he remembers how the No Campaign transformed Chile.

LARRAIN: We were living in this sort of gray mood, and it was just a suffocating environment. That's why it's so amazing what happened with the No Campaign. And these guys that show up, they brought a whole new spirit and perspective.

BARCO: The plebiscite led to the democratic election of Patricio Aylwin in 1990. He plays himself in the movie "No." But Larrain notes that Pinochet but stayed in power as commander in chief of the Chilean Army and as a senator for life. Pinochet was extradited from London to stand trial for human rights violations, tax evasion and embezzlement.

But his lawyers kept him out of court, arguing he had mild dementia. Pinochet died in 2006 at the age of 91.

LARRAIN: He died without ever stepping in the court house and a millionaire. So it's quite sad, because we never really achieved justice. And most of the people who actually killed and tortured others in my country, they are still walking on the street. That is why this issue, the whole human rights violation issue, is still is an open wound.

BARCO: Larrain's previous films dealt with the beginning and middle of the Pinochet era. He says when "No" premiered in Santiago, it sparked a national discussion, with some people arguing the film was too light.

LARRAIN: There's people that thought it was just ideologically stupid to put the perspective on an ad guy. And then people that really loved the movie and realized we were just creating a fiction with a metaphor purpose behind it.

BARCO: Many of those who worked on the 1988 campaign played themselves or their counterparts in the film.

LARRAIN: If there's something that's really beautiful that this movie made, it's that the people that actually did the campaign has finally been recognized.

ARIEL DORFMAN: People wanted to see a film about how good we can be, instead of how horrible things were.

BARCO: Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman says "No" is now a great point of pride, especially as the first film from Chile to be up for an Academy Award.

DORFMAN: It's reminding people that, yes we can. I mean, that against the worst odds, Chile has a spirit of joy and ability to overcome the worst circumstances. And I think this is part of the return of some sort of joy to Chile. And we deserve it. Our people deserve it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in Spanish)

BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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