An eerie horror show that evokes real political events by indirection
Alfredo Castro plays the kind of sleazy creep you’d like to scrape off your shoe. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who is interested in how politics seeps through to the unpolitical, has twice now made him his protagonist. In the 2008 Tony Manero Castro was a petty thief, accidental murderer, and would-be Travolta imitator during the Seventies military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. In Post Mortem, which takes place earlier, he’s morphed into a morgue worker (based on a real person) named Mario Camejo, who types up autopsy reports and was present when Allende’s body is brought in. The film begins with a prologue of military vehicles roaring over the rubble of wrecked streets. Larraín’s cool, arresting images evoke a vaguely surreal world of dead-end spaces– you half expect some insect creatures out of William S. Burroughs to pop out around a corner.
The world is not very different, as Larraín depicts it though Alfredo Castro, before and after Allende. Larraín was born three years after the coup, and he’s only imagining the atmosphere of the time, but he revels in a uniquely clammy kind of moral rigor mortis. It may be that Mario Camejo is just coming to life at the end of the film, when he slowly constructs a barricade trapping his would-be girlfriend and neighbor with the younger man she’s been hiding with. He holds with the opinion favored by the military (and the official view now), that Allende, who was shot point-blank, committed suicide: in other words, he favors the military. When Nancy prefers Victor (Marcelo Alonso), a young long-haired leftist, Mario in effect buries the couple alive, blocking them in their hiding place with the little dog he has rescued earlier.
The special pleasure of the film is the macabre alienness of its principals. Two meals Mario shares with Nancy earlier, in the period of his doomed courtship, are feasts of dry non-communication. Watch how they decide what to pick from the menu of a big Chinese restaurant, and how they share an egg fried in a little pan at Mario’s grim lodgings. “Nice place you’re got here,” says Nancy. “I like the furniture.” They sit at his table dishing up the egg, and she slowly begins to cry. Then he cries too.
Larraín’s protagonist this time leads a less eventful life than the violent, striving anti-hero of Tony Manero but he conveys a full sense of the world turned upside down just outside the frame. Mario is taking a shower and barely hears when much of his street is torn apart and Nancy’s house is demolished. We hear it, though Larraín need only show Mario showering, and the effect is much more disturbing that way (rich sound design is as essential as cinematography in creating the film’s world). Nancy’s father hosted union meetings. So her parents are never found after the coup.
This event is depicted by rubble, burned automobiles in front of the Bim Bam Bum Club from which Nancy was expelled and the piles of bodies that come to the morgue. Mario’s coworker Sandra (Amparo Noguera), who does the cutting, and their coroner Dr. Castillo (Jaime Vadell), who does the autopsy reports, are instructed to speed things up and simplify. Sandra later goes haywire and the captain in charge fires into the corpses to show her rescuing people is forbidden. She and Mario had tried to save several people who arrived not yet dead.
Much of the style of both these films is due to the contribution of the cinematographer, Sergio Armstrong, who used grainy 16mm film to create a washed-out, seedy Seventies atmosphere. With his long straight gray hair, small thin frame, sepulchral pallor, and dedicated neutrality, Alfredo Castro is a memorable figure. When he’s joined on screen by a vast accumulation of corpses Post Mortem comes very close to becoming a a horror film. While this, Larraín’s third feature, seems less compelling than the deliciously repellent Tony Manero, he has again shown his considerable knack for crabwise depiction of Seventies Chile, and a sense of how civil disorder invades behavior and consciousness. Not exactly fun stuff; big box office is not to be expected.
Ultimately it’s a narrow, limited way of seeing the world — what about the good people? Families? — but it’s an extremely evocative one. You can’t get it off your shoes, and will find it still sticking to them weeks or months later. For me, however, the creepiness of Tony Manero was greater, partly because Larraín’s visual style and his use of Alfredo Castro were fresh then, partly because the focus on the coup lessens the impact of the personal realm. Larraín has a unique vision, though his sense of a low-keyed ghoulishness resembles Matteo Garrone’s portrait of a man with a similar occupation in The Embalmer. Both films are dripping with vague eeriness.
Larraín was inspired by a news story mentioning an actual Mario Camejo as present for the autopsy on Salvador Allende. What might he have been like? the director wondered. And he imagined this film. Post Mortem debuted at Venice on September 5, 2010. “If you read the autopsy of Allende, which is public, it’s on the Web, you will find a very powerful text. It is the autopsy of Chile,” Larraín said in a Venice interview. Seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
DIRECTOR: PABLO LARRAÍN
WRITER: LARRAÍN, MATEO IRIBARREN
CAST: ALFREDO CASTRO, ANTONIA ZEGERS, JAIME VADELL, AMPARO NOGUERA, MARCELA ALONSO, MARCIA TAGLEL