Exactly 25 years ago, Chileans across the country, from Arica to Punta Arenas, went to the polls.
There was a single question on the ballot with just two choices: Yes or No.
The former meant a vote for continuing the 15-year reign of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte.
The latter signaled a vote to end his hold on power that had begun on Sept. 11, 1973, when military forces loyal to him bombed the presidential palace, La Moneda, on the way to overthrowing democratically-elected Socialist President Salvador Allende.
In the movie, Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, the skateboard-riding, single father and advertising consultant who is a fictional composite of a number of people who were charged with designing the No campaign’s advertising strategy. (In a concession to international pressure, the regime gave the “No” and “Yes” sides 15 minutes each per in the 27 days leading up to the vote.)
It’s been a season of anniversaries of major events in Chilean history since we’ve been here.
Last month marked four decades since the Pinochet-led coup.
As I’ve written before, a central theme of the volcanic eruption of memory-related activity around the coup anniversaries has been the assertion of “Nunca mas.”
In a speech she gave at the Museum of Memory and Human Rights shortly before the anniversary day itself, torture survivor, former president and current presidential front runner Michelle Bachelet explained what the idea of Nunca Mas meant to her.
In her passionate comments, Bachelet spoke about ending the climate and fear and terror that pervaded life in Chile under Pinochet and instead creating one in which human rights are respected and where there is justice.
Under Pinochet, as friend and fellow journalist Miguel Huerta said, anything could happen to you or your families at any moment, for no reason at all.
No attempts to represent that climate.
As the positive and forward-looking message of the campaign starts to resonate with the electorate-a significant portion of the film depicts Garcia’s efforts to pitch, and then film, the segment that announces “Happiness is coming”-the rattled leadership starts to stalk and threaten members of the No team.
Garcia, who places his son with his more-radical ex wife Veronica in an effort to protect him, is one of them.
In an arc that is reminiscent of Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler, Larrain shows Saavedra’s gradually deeper emotional involvement in the No cause as he comes into closer contact with the government’s abusive practices.
This puts him in increasing conflict with Lucho Guzman, played by Alfredo Castro, his former boss and the man who eventually heads the opposite campaign.
Larrain intersperses actual footage from the era as he traces Saavedra’s evolution and growth and as he leads the viewer toward the seemingly inevitable conclusion.
This includes a clip of General Fernando Matthei being interviewed by media shortly before he entered the building that is now called the Gabriela Mistral Center the evening of the vote.
A member of the junta, Matthei, the father of one of Bachelet’s leading opponents, said it was clear that the No side had won.
His words delivered the message that the generals were abandoning their leader, who had been conspiring to devise a way to invalidate his defeat.
They endorsed the triumph of democracy and the rule of law.
This moment, the ensuing celebrations among incredulous and jubilant Chileans, and the subsequent election of Patricio Alwyn as Chile’s first post-dictatorship president give No an uplifiting feel.
Indeed, one of the film’s final images shows real footage of Alwyn being installed as president. He shakes hands with Pinochet, who moves away to give the new leader his moment-an image that conveys that indeed the work of the campaign had been accomplished and that a peaceful transfer of power had been reinstated in the once-peaceful nation.
While technically true, the democracy had major caveats.
Pinochet remained the head of the military and an unelected Senator for Life who not only cast a large shadow over the nation, but never was called to legal account for the tortures, disappearances and murders that happened during his bloody tenure.
Cultural critic Nelly Richard took the film to task for much more than its uplifting ending in a lecture she delivered during a pre-anniversary held at the University of Diego Portales.
In a systematic demolition of the movie, Richard went point by point over what she felt were its many and fundamental flaws
Among the most important: its focus on the fictional Saavedra elevates and glamorizes the role he and other advertising strategists played at the expense of organic, long-standing and independent-minded social movements.
Richard also took aim at Larrain’s use of video footage from the era, saying that doing so both staked an unearned claim to historical accuracy and authenticity and, ironically, whitewashed the true terror so many Chileans experienced during that time.
This is not unfamiliar territory for critics evaluating films that tackle historic subjects.
Indeed, a central aspect of some studies of Holocaust literature, art and film start with the premise that it is impossible to fully convey what literature scholar Larry Langer called the terror and dread experienced by people who lived through the time.
There is a also a school of thought that says that the standard for critical scrutiny rises with the perceived intentions of the director.
Carroll studied the amount of coverage about the Holocaust in the United States over time, finding that there were three distinct points in which the volume of coverage spiked.
The first was in 1961, and coincided with the trial of captured Nazi Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem.
The second occurred in 1978, and was connected with the showing of the six-part miniseries, “Holocaust” that starred, among other people, a young Meryl Streep and James Woods.
And the third took place in 1993, when Schindler’s List debuted.
I mentioned the study’s results to Richard after her lecture.
Was there no value, I asked, in the popular introduction of a topic that, while not as hard-hitting as it could have been, nevertheless brought the No campaign to an audience that would otherwise know nothing about it?
Richard agreed and disagreed.
I am not saying that there is no value to the film, she told me, before adding that she found the international response to the film very complacent and uncritical.
Here in Chile, the marking of the anniversary of the No vote was muted.
I found a thin front-page story in La Segunda with Andres Zaldivar that cast a positive light on the role Christian Democrats played in the campaign.
Ricardo Lagos’ stern, finger-wagging statement on television that called Pinochet to account for his regime’s brutality is identified as one of three key aspects of the campaign.
Elected president in 2000, Lagos is the subject of much discussion in friend and UDP neighbor Rafael Gumucio’s latest book, a work in which he describes the high hopes he held for Lagos’ tenure and the conclusion he has arrived at more than a decade later than in reality the policies of Lagos’ opponent Lavin have won.
The BBC article also speaks about the role that television played during the ultimately successful campaign.
In all, coverage of the event paled in comparison with the deluge around the coup anniversary.
Still and yet, the day provides a useful opportunity to look into the reality behind the campaign and vote represented in Larrain’s movie. It also is a moment in which we can assess both how far the nation has come since the dark days of the Pinochet regime as well as how far it has yet to go to become a country whose lived reality for all matches its lofty ideals and promises to its citizens.