Sunday, June 15, 2014


It took a while, but I've finally seen the middle film in Pablo Larrain's trilogy of films set during the rule of General Pinochet in Chile. Post Mortem was released between Tony Manero and No, but is the first film of the trilogy chronologically, set during the coup year of 1973. It's also the most classically composed of the three films, with impressive widescreen cinematography by Sergio Armstrong. Alfredo Castro, the star of Tony Manero, again takes center stage as a somewhat more sympathetically alienated character. Mario Cornejo is a civil servant, as he always carefully identifies himself. That lends a certain dignity to his actual work as a transcriptionist of autopsies. It's hard to tell whether the morgue is the ideal setting for such a drab creature or whether the work and the proximity to death is killing something inside him. Mario is a lonely man with a crush on a dancer in a burlesque show, Nancy Puelma (Antonia Zegers) who happens to live across the street from him. He makes it his mission -- apparently he has the run of the backstage area -- to save her career when she's threatened with dismissal for getting too thin, going so far as to threaten harm to the theater if the manager doesn't keep her. His threat is pathetic; he childishly knocks over a glass display and ends up giving the manger his own car in return for Nancy keeping her job. Nancy herself is seeing other men but her own neediness responds to his.

Meanwhile, politics is building to a crisis that is at first only a nuisance to Mario and Nancy as a labor rally blocks their car one day. Politics hovers over Nancy like a cloud, however, as activists meet in her apartment, though she seems indifferent. Mario's detachment is illustrated as he takes a morning shower while explosions and other sounds of mayhem erupt across the street. Eventually he strolls over to find Nancy's home destroyed and no one but a dog in sight. Work is unusually busy today as bodies are filling the halls of the hospital, to the growing dismay of Mario and the assistant coroner Sandra (Amparo Noguera) who's attracted to him but had been rebuffed before. Later, Sandra and Mario are summoned by men in uniform to perform a very special autopsy. This scene simply can't have the same effect on non-Chileans, but anyone with a sense of history may feel the impact when the corpse Sandra dissects is identified as Salvador Allende, the freely-elected Marxist president who has been overthrown by the coup. Sandra can't bring herself to finish the work and Mario is such a bundle of nerves that he can't type properly; he uses his unfamiliarity with electric typewriters as an excuse. Later they debate whether Allende killed himself, as the new authorities claim, or was killed, as Sandra suspects.

Mario discovers that Nancy has survived by hiding in a shed. She now depends on Mario to provide her with supplies while she stays in hiding. Meanwhile the bodies continue to pile up at the hospital, and not all of them are dead. Mario discovers a victim still breathing and begging for life, and he and Sandra manage to sneak the man into one of the medical wards for treatment.  It proves a temporary reprieve. In a climactic scene Mario finds Sandra standing at the top of a stairwell littered with bodies, screaming at a soldier. Apparently the goons have gathered up suspect hospital patients and killed them, including the man Mario and Sandra had saved. As Mario watches, immobile, at the bottom of the stairs, Sandra risks her life by admitting that she had rescued the man. Luckily, the soldier only fires into the air to intimidate her. For extra measure he fires superfluous bullets into some of the corpses.

A contrast clearly forms in Mario's mind between Sandra's death-defying heroism and Nancy's hiding. The contrast grows more stark when he learns that Nancy has shared her hiding place with a lover. Mario's response is shown in a single shot that closes the picture and begs some questions. The answers depend on what you think of Nancy -- whether she deserves, for whatever reason, what she seems to get or whether Mario's act is a misdirected act of resistance to the atrocities raging around him. It could be seen as an atrocity in its own right, or as Mario's repudiation of a past no longer sustainable. Larrain sustains the ambiguity by ending the story here. If we were to see how Mario was going to behave thereafter, his attitude toward Sandra or toward the new regime, we could more certainly attach meaning to his treatment of Nancy. But Post Mortem is really about the specific moment in September 1973 and is arguably meant to raise broader questions about Chileans' behavior at the time, for which each has his or her reasons. Larrain here seemed to be working his way out of the grotesquerie that marked (or marred) Tony Manero and is absent from No, in which Alfredo Castro is not the central character. Some grotesquerie is excusable, I suppose, when portraying a grotesque moment in history, and if the ending raises more questions than it can answer, they're questions worth asking. As a whole, Larrain's trilogy is an admirable set of films that establish the Chilean as potentially a major figure, if not one already, in the wild world of cinema.

No comments: