Two very different foreign films focus on the advertising industry. Though they are utterly different in tone and effectiveness, they intersect at the idea that advertising feeds upon our innate desire for happiness.
The Chilean film No is an effective docudrama set in the twilight years of the Pinochet regime. For those unaware: Chile democratically elected a Marxist, Salvador Allende, to the presidency in 1970. He was toppled by a CIA-backed coup and strongman Augusto Pinochet put a military junta in place. The film picks up events as international pressure has brought about an impending referendum that will either extend Pinochet’s rule or allow for democratic elections to return. A “Yes” for Pinochet or “No” for democracy. Each campaign will get 15 minute advertising spots on television each night.
The film departs slightly from history to inject fictional characters into the unfolding drama. Young René (Gael Garcia Bernal) is a hot-shot advertising executive (and former exile) who is approached by the opposition parties to lend his skills to the “No” campaign. Upon accepting the assignment he begins to clash with his clients: they see their 15 minutes as a vital opportunity to expose Pinochet’s atrocities and address the past 15 years of abuse. In René’s view he’s selling Chile a future and understands that the ad medium is best when reduced to a vehicle for compact aspiration. His bright, upbeat ideas remind the party officials of “Coca-Cola” ads! The challenge is not just for René to push his approach forward, but whether his uplifting message is up to the monumental challenge of countering a violent, menacing apparatus. Can a dictator be toppled with a jingle?
No is modestly made and wonderfully subtle in execution. The drama is neither orchestrated nor underplayed, it’s simply allowed to unfold. It will remind many of European and American films of the 1970s. It seems palpably correct to its period. Though it fabricates details it comes off serving the truth with apparent veracity. Of course, there’s a story beneath what unfolds in the film: free-market economists seized upon Chile as a laboratory for Milton Friedman’s ideas. During Pinochet’s reign the ideas that soon transformed the globe were employed. Chile was the petri dish for the ideas that have now spread throughout the globe and brought about such monumental difficulties. This is what makes No relevant to an American audience. One scene in Pinochet’s campaign headquarters is particularly haunting: an advisor enthuses about their winning formula- that it isn’t that everyone can become successful so much as that anyone can… the key is for a populace to dream about being that anyone. Sound familiar?
Branded is a completely different slice of cinema. An American-Russian co-production, it’s a surreal satire that is effective in many parts but is weak in the connective tissue required to make the film go down well. It’s as if David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam collaborated on a film but never took each other’s calls. Like No, the protagonist is a young ad executive. Misha (Ed Stoppard) is a cynical fellow who has an interesting theory about the origin of modern marketing: “Lenin invented it,” he tells Abby (Leelee Sobieski), the attractive niece of his American boss (Jeffery Tambor). Guiding her through an exhibit of Soviet propaganda he makes the case that Lenin’s use of persuasive language and visuals “sold the people on the possibility of happiness…” providing the template for all sophisticated pitches to follow.
Following a chain of contrived misfortune Misha retreats from the urban landscape that’s oversaturated with the ads he helped create. He becomes a simple cattleman until Abby tracks him down and reveals that he is a father. Before returning he attempts to cleanse himself with an ancient sacrificial ritual of a cow (cows are important in this film: not just literally but as a subtext for the subplot that involves a conspiracy to make heaviness fashionable, and it’s narrated by a celestial space cow!). As a side effect Misha attains visionary capacities that reveal that the “brands” are actually malignant entities feeding off people. The whole affair becomes a lunatic landscape of grotesque apparitions that reduce Misha to a trembling witness to the horrors.
One is left wondering if the filmmakers were attempting serious commentary or if they are just having callous fun. There’s certainly an ambitious scale to the undertaking, but the reach often exceeds the grasp. The send-ups of familiar ad icons are a hoot, the malevolent manifestations are interesting but the effects are uneven. Misha towards the end uses both his knowledge of marketing and his visionary capacity to launch a grand battle to cleanse the world of all this nasty consumerism. It’s intensely entertaining nonsense that evolves into some psychedelic cross between Transformers and Pokemon. Ultimately it’s the manic absurdity that rescues the film from its many flaws. But it’s also shallow. It suffers from what the many ads it lampoons do: the inability to deliver as much satisfaction as it promises.