Pablo Larraín uses the aesthetics of art cinema to unearth the buried traumas of Chile's horrifying past. Unlike his more ethereal compatriot Patricio Guzmán, he deals in antiseptic period-piece detail, black humor, and ghostly characterizations, all to capture the commonplace, lived-in, and normal nature of a nation's collective nightmare. Post Mortem, the second in Larraín's trilogy examining the lasting effects of the 1973 coup d'état on Chilean life, is an especially nasty affair, utilizing off-screen sound and violence to express the omniscient qualities of terror. If the power of suggestion allows Post Mortem to imagine a grisly picture of bloodshed beyond the frame, the static compositions of corpses piled in rows and houses decimated by gunfire brings home the immediacy of the coup's carnage without resorting to theatrics.
The haunting story of Mario (Alfredo Castro), an employee at a Santiago morgue who watches from the sidelines as his country turns into a cemetery overflowing with bodies, is one of massive delusion. Time seems to stand still as Mario goes about his daily routine, transcribing autopsy notes and fawning over his cabaret-dancer neighbor, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), from a distance. His quaint home is marked by chipped paint and patterned wallpaper washed out from years of dust and sunlight, a sort of hazy tomb for this virtually silent cipher. The strife between Salvador Allende's Marxist forces and the C.I.A. backed military of Pinochet is mere background fodder, witnessed by Mario in the form of passing protests, rubble-strewn houses, and military vehicles barreling down desolate urban streets. That the actual shelling of La Moneda Palace and the assassination of Allende happens in between cuts feels perfectly fitting for a film about pervasive denial.
While there are similarities between Mario and Raul Peralta, the John Travolta-obsessed character also played by Castro in Larraín's deranged Tony Manero, the former is more consumed by the fantasy of interpersonal relationships. Whereas Raul is driven by the prospect of national celebrity, Mario yearns for a deeply romantic and personal connection with Nancy, a sexually promiscuous woman whose family and friends are deeply entrenched in the anti-Pinochet movement. Through Mario's eagerness to connect, Post Mortem initially suggests that love, or at least the prospect of emotional expression, is hidden somewhere in his deeply repressed mind, itching to be revealed despite his obvious aloofness. That Mario never comes close to fulfilling this desire is one of Post Mortem's great tragedies.
However awkward his early moments of courtship feel, Mario's continuous attempts to express himself to Nancy feel earnest and sincere, if not completely retarded by his delusional view of casual conversation and the world at large. When the two go out on a date at a Chinese restaurant, they bicker over what to order in what has to be one of the strangest eating scenes the movies have ever seen. It's a moment of miscommunication and assumption that could represent two warring ideologies fumbling over the prospect of compromise. Mario also attempts to meet Nancy's family by knocking on her door one night unannounced, but the sequence ends abruptly, as so many do in Post Mortem, when the chance of emotional fulfillment reaches a stalemate.
Like every relationship in the film, Mario and Nancy's interactions are warped by division, something expressed in the surrounding mood and tone of Larraín's imposing mise-en-scène. Medium shots are dissected down the middle by characters with their backs to the camera, while handheld close-ups linger on faces split in half by the edge of the frame. No one feels whole and everyone seems literally torn into pieces by the blocking. The only sex scene is filmed entirely in one take, the camera looking down at Nancy's contorting body from what may or may not be Mario's POV, an especially potent moment.
Mario's consistent disavowal of both Chile's national turmoil and his own romantic failing with Nancy resonates most during sequences where Larraín directly presents his character with the ideological elephant in the room: fascism. Post Mortem's most absurd scene comes when Mario is forced to transcribe Allende's autopsy before a column of military brass. Surrounded by soldiers, Mario fumbles with the typewriter while a doctor describes in meticulous detail the bullet wound that shredded the president's skull to a pulp. Mario's incompetence eventually interrupts the proceedings, and a young officer casually takes his place. Not just a fascinating slice of historiography, this scene is a requiem, capturing the sterile ruthlessness that ultimately influences Mario's actions in the film's final moments.
Ultimately, ideological conflict and emotional disappointment end up pushing Mario deeper down his own self-constructed rabbit hole. Any hope of connection becomes submerged under the weight of indifference and speechless defeat. When Mario turns into a possessed gravedigger during the film's amazingly brutal final shot, it feels like the striking culmination of Larraín's treatise on the long-gestating effects of authoritarian rule. If Mario's languishing gaze initially held some semblance of hope, now it's simply a thousand-yard stare. His is a nation of zombies.
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Post Mortem is all about flat visual patterns and isolated figures, and Kino Lorber's crisp high-definition transfer perfectly represents Pablo Larraín's sobering and cold compositional design. Every muted color—from the jaundiced pops of yellow in the monochromatic tile backsplash at the morgue to Mario's faded blue suede suit—resonates with great clarity. Equally impressive is the carefully calibrated sound presentation, even though some dialogue sequences suffer from annoyingly low volume. But Kino has done justice to the loud off-screen violence that crackles with intense pops of gunfire and crashing windows throughout the film.
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Chile is a burial ground in Pablo Larraín's rigorously clinical, 1970s-set Post Mortem, a brilliantly macabre examination of evil seamlessly infecting those passionless souls indifferent to the threat of violent political transition.