The clever political chronicle -- Or is it better described as a drama? Or, instead, satire? -- starts with a stroke of genius. A group of executives sit around a table as an advertising team presents them with a new ad campaign.

"It's young, it's unbound, it's free!" a near-ecstatic narrator declares. What's the product being sold: a magazine, an item of lingerie, a car?

A soft drink, of course.

The television spot for a cola, called Free, encapsulates perfectly the close marriage of Madison Avenue and K Street. Except this scene takes place in Santiago. "Let's be honest: Today, Chile thinks in its future," adman Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) explains to the executive before proudly showing him the spot. The chief exec loves it -- except for the inexplicable appearance of a mime in the middle of the proceedings -- and why wouldn't he? Saavedra is a prescient young man. Nowadays, self-important ideology is used to sell products as quotidian as shoes, while the familiar tropes of buying and selling are used to market ideologies.

On screen
» Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers
» Director: Pablo Larrain
» Rated: R for language
» Running time: 110 minutes

One of the first political campaigns to use the insights -- such as they are -- of modern advertising was also one of the most important. In 1988, Chileans faced a choice, a simple yes or no question: Should Augusto Pinochet, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since taking power by force in 1973, be given another eight years to rule? Or should the country hold democratic elections in 1989, ending a dictatorship that made the country an economic success, but was a dictatorship nonetheless?

The ads Saavedra comes up with would seem preposterous if so many of them weren't real. Director Pablo Larrain says that about 30 percent of the film's footage is pure documentary. Because he used a 1980s-era camera to make his movie, it's impossible to tell the difference. This purposefully low-tech approach results in a film with a lot of light. Too much, perhaps, for the contemporary eye, but it captures the optimism of the time as well as Saavedra's rainbow-laden ads.

Those behind the "No" campaign want to use their TV time -- the dictatorship actually allowed them equal coverage -- to highlight the junta's brutality, some of which we see in the film. But Saavedra knows that beatings and death don't sell products or ideas -- the thought of a bright, if blurry, future does.

There's plenty of amusement to be found in the strategies of both sides. Those fighting the "Yes" campaign think they need to get the tyrant out of his military uniform. "I think we should take advantage of his blue eyes, his smile," one adviser says. But there's a seriousness behind the satire that makes "No," an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, must-viewing for citizens of every modern nation.