Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem (2010) is a grimly fascinating Chilean drama set during the early days of the Pinochet regime. Lacking the black humor of Larraín’s brilliant Tony Manero (2008), the film is about a morgue functionary in Santiago who scarcely seems more alive than the bodies that begin piling up at the hospital following the military coup on September 11, 1973. The miracle of the film is that something so compelling could be made from such bleak material.
The central character, Mario (Alfredo Castro), inhabits a life without purpose or joy; he’s just going through the motions. He has an undemanding job taking notes during autopsies, and lives alone. He has no family, no close friends, no hobbies or interests. His favorite meal is a fried egg on white rice. At the office, his colleagues sometimes discuss politics, but Mario has no political convictions either way. The film doesn’t tell us what happened to Mario to make him this way (indeed, it doesn’t give him any backstory whatsoever), but finds him already locked into a set pattern of behavior and incapable of change.
In the first sequence, Mario sees his neighbor, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), leaving her house and follows her to the cabaret where she works as a dancer. After buying a ticket for the show, Mario sneaks backstage in time to witness Nancy getting fired for having lost too much weight, and strikes up a friendship with her then and there. Although Nancy already has a boyfriend—a passionate communist who sometimes holds political meetings at her house—Mario remains willfully oblivious to this fact. One evening, Nancy comes over to visit and Mario makes her a fried egg on rice. Sitting at the table, Nancy begins to weep uncontrollably, and then so does Mario. But is this a genuine expression of despair, or is he simply going with the flow?
As in Tony Manero, Larraín considers the brutality unleashed by the Pinochet regime from the vantage point of some one who’s strangely apathetic to it. Even when Mario discovers that Nancy’s home has been raided by the military and the morgue is suddenly filled with bodies, he scarcely seems to notice the difference. In the film’s most political scene, Larraín endorses the controversial theory that Allende was assassinated, although that’s of little concern to Mario.
Shooting for the first time in ‘Scope, Larraín largely abandons the grainy, handheld style of Tony Manero in favor of symmetrical, planimetric compositions that underline the drab monotony of Mario’s existence. The settings are uniformly anemic-looking, and Mario often wears pale, Mr. Rogers-style sweaters that blend in with the background rather than standing out. At the center of everything is Castro’s performance, which is weirdly virtuosic in its singular lack of charisma. Although he appears in every scene, you almost don’t notice him.
Larraín and his writing partner, Mateo Iribarren, have a strong instinct for how much information to reveal to the audience and when. Early in the film, Mario and Nancy are driving around in his car when they find their way blocked by a political demonstration. Among the protestors happens to be Nancy’s boyfriend, who casually walks off with her. The next time we see Nancy, Mario’s colleagues are performing an autopsy on her. A few scenes later, Mario goes over to Nancy’s house and asks to see her, but the boyfriend says that she isn’t feeling well. It’s only when Nancy turns up at Mario’s door, miraculously resurrected, that we realize what we’re seeing is a flashback. (Larraín doesn’t use any stylistic devices, such as title cards or fades, to signal jumps back and forth in time.) By skipping ahead to Nancy’s death and then flipping back to the events leading up to it, Larraín not only gives us a little surprise, but also generates a sense of mystery about how she died.
This is only Larraín’s third feature yet he’s already well on his way towards creating a distinctive body of work. In Tony Manero and now this film, he peers into the abyss of human despair and emptiness. Indeed, if I have a slight criticism of Post Mortem, it’s that the film is a little too similar to Larraín’s previous movie. (I haven’t seen—and know almost nothing about—his first film, Fuga .) Nevertheless, Larraín’s grasp of the medium and his seriousness in confronting the horrors of the Pinochet regime both command respect. This may not be an easy film to watch given the unrelieved grimness of the subject matter and mise en scène, but it’s clearly an important one.