SANTIAGO, Chile – Gael Garcia Bernal, best known for his role as a young Ernesto "Che" Guevara in "The Motorcycle Diaries," says his latest film has taught him a great deal about the pain that Chileans suffered during a long dictatorship.
The Mexican actor stars in "No," which revisits a publicity campaign that helped oust Gen. Augusto Pinochet from power after 16 years of his brutal regime.
Garcia Bernal plays Rene Saavedra, an advertising hotshot, drawn into a 1988 referendum TV campaign who tries to persuade people to vote "No" to eight more years of Pinochet. His character uses adverts that feature catchy jingles, a rainbow graphic and dancing Chileans — from cowboys and housemaids to cooks and miners — to sell them the idea that positive change could end the regime.
The publicity stunt worked when the strongman, who once compared himself to the best Roman emperors, was ousted with 55 percent of people voting "no." Pinochet's removal paved the way for the country's return to democracy and more than two decades of economic prosperity.
Garcia Bernal said he grew up with a group of Latin American exiles but didn't fully understand their suffering until he shot the film about the referendum in Chile.
"This made me realize the profound pain caused by the dictatorship and it hit me hard," he told The Associated Press ahead of the film's premiere in Santiago on Monday. "The director wanted to make a movie about the history of what went on in 1988, as well as an introspection and reflection on democracy."
Chile remains highly divided over Pinochet's rule. Even the mere mention of his name makes many Chileans cringe with the memories of him shutting down Congress, outlawing political parties and sending thousands of dissidents into exile, while his police tortured and killed thousands more.
But to his loyalists, Pinochet remains a fatherly figure who oversaw Chile's growth into economic prosperity and kept it from becoming a socialist state. Chile's government estimates that 3,095 people were killed during Pinochet's rule.
"Before this campaign no one dared to talk, so when they were finally given a chance, the knee-jerk reaction could have been let's tell the world about everything that's wrong with Pinochet — his countless atrocities and about those who have died. But the minds behind the campaign said 'no,' let's use another way," Pablo Larrain, the film's director told the AP.
"They said — the way to oust Pinochet is to show something positive about what would come next, to tell people: 'the happiness is coming,' and that was the turning point. The dictatorship was dumbfounded, they didn't know how to react and a very original campaign came from this that finally defeated Pinochet."