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Reviews - Post Mortem

Post Mortem

Reviewed By John Stakes

Post Mortem
Post Mortem
Not to be confused with at least two other fairly recent films with the same title, Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s 2010 “Post Mortem” screened last Sunday contained within its disturbingly clever title a triple significance.

On the surface it proved to be a predictably grisly story of a lonely mortuary attendant Mario (played by an appropriately pale-faced and gaunt-looking Alfredo Castro) whose principal function is to record the pathologist’s commentary on the state and condition of each cadaver. His job is about to become unbearably onerous as his country is on the point of bloody civil war as the army, under the leadership of General Pinochet, deposes President Allende. It is September 1973.

As a possible distraction from the demands of his job Mario fantasises over Nancy, an anorexic showgirl who lives with her brother and father, a communist agitator across the street. Mario and Nancy are damaged goods. So abstruse is their behaviour when in each other’s presence that it is difficult to know how much of what we see of their subsequent “relationship” is real or imagined. Perhaps this is how we are meant to feel. What is clear is that Mario decides to carry a torch for Nancy who, despite having a boyfriend, is aimlessly casual enough to allow him into her life and is soon able to exploit Mario’s little acts of kindness.

For over half the film’s length Larrain prefers to concentrate on their personal life rather than revealing the wider political conflict, but we can feel its approach as the underside of a tank is seen rolling in as the film opens and the streets later begin to empty. An eerie silence prevails punctured only by the sounds of Nancy’s family home being ransacked which a showering Mario fails initially to detect. And when the coup which catapults Pinochet into power erupts, we see it confined to the quiet occupation of Mario’s working environment. Even the soundtrack remains silent. The enormity of the coup becomes clear when Mario is suddenly presented with the body of a man who is identified as Allende himself. The pathologist is directed to conclude the autopsy with a finding of suicide.

The dislocated and fractured nature of Mario and Nancy’s brief and tenuous relationship becomes an obvious metaphor for Pinochet’s soon to be hated regime which, in contrast, was to last another seventeen years before democracy was restored. During this time the whole of Chile’s film archive was destroyed in Pinochet’s drive to remove art from the national consciousness on the pretext that it was “for old ladies, homosexuals and Jews”.

Back on the personal front Mario finds Nancy (who had earlier disappeared along with her family) in hiding, but she later confounds his sense of morality by revealing that she is also harbouring her boyfriend and, by doing so, destroys Mario’s desire to protect her. Mario turns her hideaway into her tomb and she becomes, like all other newly piled up cadavers, just another unidentifiable victim of the coup.

But there was a third and even more intriguing strand to Larrain’s film. This director was born three years after the coup and therefore grew up during Pinochet’s reign of terror. When he became a grown man he read a newspaper article about Allende’s autopsy and learned that it was supervised by the military on the first day of the coup. The report was signed by two doctors and an unknown coroner’s assistant by the name of Mario Cornejo. The finding was suicide. Not only did Larrain decide to devote the next part of his life to filming this section of Chile’s history, in making “Post Mortem” he filmed within the actual mortuary to which Allende was brought and modelled his main character on the unknown assistant whose name he adopts.

Larraine has become noted for perplexing but striking denouements to his films as was demonstrated here with Nancy’s incarceration. Larrain in interview summarily explains that his last scene was a metaphor “for all that s…t that Chile swept under the carpet”.

A pall of despair and despondency pervades throughout Larrain’s unusual and gruesome take on the events around the 9th September 1973. The pace is deliberately slow and the film has a grey deathly pallid look about it to reflect both the personal and political landscape. This effect was achieved not apparently because of some clever post production work but thanks to the use of some old cameras which Larraine happened to come across.

Alfredo Castro and his director also worked together on Larrain’s second film “Tony Manero” which was set after the Pinchet regime had become established and which cemented Larrain’s reputation for visually striking and uncomfortable cinema. There is no doubt that their collaboration has produced some very challenging, arresting and definitive work. Not perhaps for the faint hearted and there is more than a touch of the acquired taste about his contribution to world cinema which here mixes the psychosexual with surrealism and graphic reality. But its imagery, though sometimes perplexing, is nevertheless undeniably powerful.

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