The first film in Pablo Larraín’s Pinochet trilogy, 2008’s “Tony Manero,” took an inventive, circuitous approach in depicting the horrific oppression that Chileans suffered under the rule of a dictator. The second film, 2010’s “Post Mortem,” surpasses its predecessor in terms of bleakness and enigmatic acting, all the while raising compelling ideas about the role of the civilian during political revolution.
Alfredo Castro re-teams with Larraín to play mild-mannered autopsy transcriber Mario Cornejo. Mario is incompetent at his job, socially awkward, and incredibly needy of the affections of his wispy burlesque dancer neighbor Nancy (Antonia Zegers), who soon succumbs to malnutrition. Yet she mysteriously reappears the next day, coinciding with the possible assassination of President Salvador Allende and Pinochet’s coup d’etat.
To say that “Post Mortem” is dour would be a grave understatement. Between the drab technical aspects, emotionless acting, and distasteful subject matter, the film is downright ugly. Sergio Armstrong’s 16mm cinematography features a bland color palette, unflattering lighting, and static camerawork. There is also no music whatsoever, lending the proceedings a sense of dread. However, in creating such a chilly aesthetic, Larraín aptly conveys the oppressive atmosphere of Pinochet-era Chile. The ambiance of the film reflects the sort of major political dysfunction and social malaise that characterized the nation in the 1970s. At times, the film’s relentless ugliness verges on oppressive, distracting the viewer from the central messages, but it is integral to the experience in spite of its unwieldiness — Larraín’s way of making the viewer feel the universe he presents.
Lead actor Castro delivers a dead-eyed performance that is spiritually similar to his turn in “Tony Manero,” albeit in a different context. In the previous film, he played a sociopath who evinced little humanity. In “Post Mortem,” Mario is a milquetoast loner who harbors an unnerving dependency on women. By the end, he devolves into a callous, unfeeling brute — a man who is unfazed by the sight of murdered innocents. And just as in “Tony Manero,” Castro’s character eventually comes to symbolize the violent police state created by Pinochet. His performance seems almost robotic–even when an important character dies, Castro barely reacts at all–as if to represent the unfeeling juggernaut that was Pinochet’s government in human form.
However unpleasant a sit, “Post Mortem” consistently engages with thought-provoking ideas and symbolism. At one point, Mario and Nancy get into a discussion about Purgatory, after which it becomes clear that this supposedly deceased woman is currently experiencing such a hell on Earth in Chile. This would explain Mario’s job at the morgue and the several scenes of the man moving piles of dead bodies into the building. He serves as a Charon-like character, who becomes trapped between the shores of the river Styx with this woman, who refuses to die. In this sense, “Post Mortem” plays like a magic-realist portrait of a country torn apart by political turmoil.
“Post Mortem” engages with its themes more actively than its predecessor, emerging as the more sophisticated if less dynamic and entertaining film (there is no “Saturday Night Fever” impersonator in sight). However, fans of the first entry in the trilogy should be satisfied by this one, too, as it poses similar questions about the effect of an oppressive government on its people. Just be ready for Larraín to drag you through the mud along the way.
“Post Mortem” is available to stream on Netflix.