Absence of Life
in 32nd International Festival of New Latin American Cinema
by Mario Abbade
Following his award-winning “Tony Manero,” Chilean director Pablo Larraín once more teams up with actor Alfredo Castro in his new movie, “Post Mortem.” And once again, Larrain treats Chile’s 1970’s military dictatorship, narrating the story of Mario, an eccentric individual prey to psychotic obsession.
In his prior film, the character was obsessed by John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” In “Post Mortem,” Mario’s obsession is named Nancy. The filmmaker’s morbid humor drives the narrative, with even stronger, more disturbing insistence.
The story unfolds a few days before Pinochet’s 1973 coup.
Mario is in charge of transcribing the doctors’ autopsies at Santiago’s morgue. He is in love with Nancy, his neighbor, an anorexic dancer at Bim Bam Bum who, lacking the required voluptuousness, is fired. Nancy’s house is the meeting place for communist sympathizers. As the couple begin a bizarre relationship, military forces close in, the siege begins.
Larrain uses this political scenario to examine human behavior. Mario is the main focus, but other characters come under scrutiny as bodies of the regime’s victims pile up. The filmmaker, motivated by the desire to dissect Chilean society, accomplishes his aim masterfully.
The scenes that unfold under a moving tank represent Mario’s mental state: he is an individual robotized by the system. Such mechanical behavior is also demonstrated by the way Mario satisfies himself on his own, and even when he makes love to Nancy. Interacting with another person makes sex even more painful.
The autopsy of Socialist ex-president Salvador Allende’s is one of the movie’s strongest scenes, focusing on the eyes of the three main characters who carry out the examination. And we see that that Mario is still alive and breathing, another moment with a clear political thrust.
Alfredo Castro’s performance is visceral. His Tony Manero was a serial killer, and his psychopathic Mario is even more disturbing. He acts his role as a vampire depleted of energy, counting on basic functions to survive. His expression denotes absence of life. His only channel of communication is his stifling passion for Nancy.
Larraín’s way of seeing things, this existential emptiness, parallel the passivity of Chilean society during those historic moments.
The movie has several scenes with visual messages. In one, Mario, after Nancy cries, reveals despair, showing that there has been empathy between them. Larraín takes his time depicting reactions, provoking our discomfort. He often uses this technique to convey his message, as towards the end of the movie, when we watch an egg burn in the frying pain, suggesting that Mario’s indifference has reached its limit.
“Post-Mortem’s” final 8-minute shot will be a reference for movie lovers and analysts. This terrifying scene shows an individual suffocating among human vestiges—putting a final and anguishing emotional seal on the film.