Title: Post Mortem
Directed by: Pablo Larrain
Starring: Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Amparo Noguera
Set during the coup d’etat by General Pinochet in 1970’s Chile, Mario (played by Alfredo Castro), a civil servant who makes a living typing reports for a morgue, is caught in the crossfire. He’s not involved in the politics, nor does he really have anything directly at stake during the takeover–but a woman he falls in love with, a burlesque dancer, named Nancy Puelma (Antonia Zegers), is indirectly involved with an underground communist party that seeks to have Pinochet and his regime ousted. Directed by Pablo Larrain, this piece of art-house filmmaking is top-notch in quality, but lacks the dramatic and narrative energy of other of the same ilk–like The Lives of Others–even though the last 20 minutes are gripping, touching and even terrifying. In Post Mortem, Larrain chooses to inject the film with a lot of dark humor and touching humanism, like Mike Leigh, but as a piece of drama, it doesn’t quite make it.
Mario is your lonely, awkward protagonist. Like most art house or independent films, the central character is usually encumbered by his or her inability to communicate with the world around him/or her. This is Mario’s dilemma. It’s not without its humor, though. But despite his inhibitions, he gives it a go and before he knows it, he’s out driving with her. With Mario, it’s difficult to say whether he merely has traits of the archetype or he’s just a cliche–he does have his moments of being harsh, or cruel, but his vulnerability is hidden behind it all. Surprisingly enough, this isn’t really a romance. It’s only getting started. It slowly turns into a drama when Nancy disappears, and Mario’s world is turned upside down. Even though the Pinochet coup was the backdrop, it slowly takes on more prominence as the film goes on–whether it really adds up to a whole or not is questionable.
Post Mortem takes its time getting to the second and third act (if this film ‘technically’ follows the three act structure, that is). I’ve never had a problem with slow boiling movies; rather, I find it to be more of a relief since it allows us to breathe and take in the environment and characters–Larrain is in no rush to get to the ‘point’. However, in this case, Larrain seems split on what kind of film he really wants to make. One side being the darkly humorous romance set in a tumultuous time in history (which seems strangely contradictory to the dark and violent time period) and the other side being a drama bent on suspense and the fear of being caught. Unfortunately, these pieces of the puzzle do not fit together properly.
Larrain has a strong directorial vision, and it’s even more evident with his wonderful cinematography and direction of the actors/actresses. As a character study, it is certainly interesting. Like the film, Mario is a mess of contradictions. It makes him likable as well as a little off-putting. This is what gives the film its life. He feels compelled to lie about his profession and turn away those who seem to really like him. One woman in the film, Sandra, (Amparo Noguera), genuinely likes him, and he rebuffs her with no remorse and it makes for a surprising and even cruel scene. And in the last 20 minutes, the characterizations come full circle and almost make the movie. Sandra, a mortician’s aide, is the most vocal character in the end. Her reaction to a mass slaughter is horrific and real.
Pablo Larrain’s interesting Post Mortem is flawed but definitely worth the price of admission for those accustomed to this ‘type’ of film. It needed more focus, and a better sense of what it is–rather than what it really wants to be. Larrain is terrific with characterization and could have made an entire movie with just Nancy, Mario and Sandra. It ultimately ends up feeling like another movie. Mario surprises us in the end, when a shocking reveal throws him over the edge. In this case, the term ‘civil servant’ almost seems contradictory. All the while, I found myself wondering if Mario was in fact sealing himself off from the world, pushing out the fear of persecution and war–instead, retreating back into his own solemn, lonely life at the morgue.