It’s a shame that this foreign-language film Oscar contender probably won’t get the attention it deserves, writes HANNAH QUINN.

Gael García Bernal hannah quinn no Pablo Larraín René

One mark of a good film is managing to take a subject that sounds unpromising – in this case, a referendum – and make it captivating. No manages this wonderfully. Set in Chile in 1988, it follows the campaigns that preceded the referendum to decide whether the dictator General Pinochet should remain in power.

It seems simple: each side, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, have 15 minutes a day on national television to campaign. ‘Yes’ has power, money, and all the resources and intimidation a dictatorial government has to offer. ‘No’, by contrast, is headed by a young advertising executive, René Saavedra, who handles it like he’s advertising Coca-Cola. Without an actual candidate, they can promise anything. And they do, selling a seductive vision of a free Chile with the slogan ‘happiness is coming’.

René is an appealing hero, smart and charismatic. Gael García Bernal portrays the character perfectly, always leaving us wondering who René really is: revolutionary, or ad man? Socialist or capitalist? The ambiguity of his character is one of the film’s many strengths. Some of the other characters, though, aren’t quite fleshed out enough for my liking, and at times the film lacks depth.

But this is where director Pablo Larraín’s intriguing choice to film in low-definition really works wonders. A high definition sheen might leave it all feeling a little too Mad Men. But the grainy look of the footage, with its own hazy beauty, is tremendously effective at recreating the look of 80s television with the equipment of the time. It’s a shortcut to an immediacy and authenticity that’s really needed. That’s authenticity in a literal sense, too – archive footage blends seamlessly into the action. The reality of these events is always on the edge of vision.

That said, a true(ish) story is a double-edged sword. We already know what’s going to happen, which removes the suspense that you’d think would be vital to a film about trying to win a referendum. I think this is what makes the film a little slow in parts; the momentum slackens when it feels like no one has anything to lose. The lack of any real subplot allows for a great focus on the story, but it also means that there’s nothing much left for us to guess at.

I’m being slightly picky here: No is an endlessly enjoyable and powerful film, and it’s nice to see Latin American cinema on the world stage. Unfortunately, with competition like Amour, it probably doesn’t have much chance of winning that foreign-language film Oscar. That’s a real shame in a way, because it means No might not quite get the attention it deserves. It’s a very accomplished film: not perfect, but funny, heartfelt, and engaging. There’s also just the right level of cynicism about the ethics of reducing a political message of liberation to a marketing ploy; the ironies are hinted at, but never made too explicit. No might have its flaws, but it’s easily got charm enough to make up for them.