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Gael García Bernal in Pinochet-era Chile in "No."

Gael García Bernal plays an ad man in Pinochet-era Chile in “No.”

The Chilean docudrama “No,” a recent Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, begins with advertising whiz René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) showing his new commercial to a client. The first irony is that, despite the solemn ceremony of his presentation, the commercial turns out to be a chirpy, inane musical montage hawking a beverage called “Free.” The subtler incongruity lies in René’s efforts to sell “Free” to Chileans in 1988. Just how free can the Chileans actually be under notorious dictator Augusto Pinochet?

Saavedra affords “No” an intriguing perspective on a fascinating historical tipping point. Based on the play “El Plebiscito,” the film chronicles Chile’s 1988 referendum to determine whether Pinochet would get another eight-year term in office or be replaced through presidential and parliamentary elections. The plebiscite arrangement, a result of international pressure on the South American nation, required that both sides of the issue use 15 minutes of airtime a night to make the case for “yes” and “no.” Not unlike “Argo,” “No” is a compelling period piece that pits professional image-makers against real-world tyranny.

Saavedra eventually becomes a driving creative force behind the anti-Pinochet campaign, but his sensibility resembles Don Draper’s more than Che Guevara’s. Early scenes show him skateboarding through the streets, conveying a boyish, bourgeois approach to life. His apolitical attitude belies his background, as his family went into exile after Pinochet’s coup in 1973 and his estranged wife frequently faces jail time as an outspoken activist. (Saavedra is based on a composite of two real people.)

Saavedra initially balks at the offer to contribute to the “no” campaign, assuming that the plebiscite is bound to be rigged and that if Pinochet wins, he’ll arrest his opponents. The ad man changes his mind after meeting leftist true believers who plan to broadcast grim ads enumerating the many killed and “disappeared” under Pinochet’s regime. Saavedra argues that the way to sway public opinion is not through righteous outrage (however justifiable), but with humor and optimism — to turn “no” into a positive and give Chileans something to vote for and not just against. He initially seems to participate out of the old “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” reasoning that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. But at heart, he seems motivated less by idealism than simply in order to prove that he has the right idea.

Seamlessly juxtaposing re-created footage with archival ads (including spots from the likes of Christopher Reeve and Richard Dreyfuss), director Pablo Larraín takes great pleasure in showcasing the now-campy conventions of the era’s television. At one point René specifically requests that a “jingle” be used as the campaign’s theme song, and the ensuing tune, “Happiness Is Coming,” emulates such musical appeals to public opinion as “We Are the World.” We even see the battle of attack ads vs. response ads: team “no” shows a beautiful woman in bed rebuffing the advances of a lecherous Pinochet lookalike, which the “yes” campaign counters with a different woman in bed saying “yes” to a jubilant Average Joe.

But the “no” campaign unfolds in an atmosphere of paranoia as Saavedra and his comrades find themselves subject to surveillance, vandalism and other forms of state-sponsored harassment, not to mention a “no” rally broken up with police violence. And even if “no” wins the vote, there’s no guarantee that Pinochet will willingly step aside. Saavedra’s boss throws in with the “yes” campaign and issues veiled threats to his colleague, but it’s unclear whether he’s really gone over to the dark side or they’re simply working for opposing clients.

Tonally, “no” seems to take its cues from Saavedra’s cerebral, diffident personality. Bernal conveys the man’s attachment to his son and engagement in his projects, but like the movie itself, he seems to hold his passions at arm’s length, preventing his relationships from coming into focus. “No” undermines the sense of historical triumph at the finale with an ambiguous note that questions just how much Chile’s power structure has really changed. The film proves a little too emotionally cool to elicit genuine love, but audiences eager for a funny and thoughtful history lesson should just say “No.”

“No.” With Gael García Bernal. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Rated R. 118 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.