Set during the time of the Chilean coup in 1973, director Pablo Larrain’s POST MORTEM follows the mind-numbingly dreary existence of Mario (Alfredo Castro), who works transcribing autopsies for the local coroner. He is infatuated with an anorexic burlesque dancer, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), who lives across the street from him with her socialist father and brother.
The first half of the film follows Mario’s grim efforts to win Nancy’s hand, to which burgeoning political unrest functions as a backdrop that Mario hardly notices. One morning while bathing, he hears a disturbance and goes to look; Nancy’s home has been bombed. Meanwhile, at the mortuary, bodies are piling up. Mario and his colleagues are informed they now serve the Chilean army.
Characters and events in POST MORTEM are observed from a distance, through the haze of Mario’s self-absorption. If the scene draws close, a clinical intimacy takes over. Drab minutiae and the inconveniences of life during wartime are more front and center than historical events; the big things happen off-screen, and Mario absorbs the aftermath with little to no show of impact. In an early scene, Nancy confesses to Mario that she fears purgatory more than hell; war, Larrain reminds us, can be both. Scenes play out interminably, purposefully straining the viewer’s tolerance. There is an excess of everything: emotional displays, sex, and the bodies at the hospital are all over-exposed. History happens in the minute cracks of existence: Mario and his female colleague are ordered to assist in the autopsy of Allende. The nurse puts down her scalpel for political reasons, but Mario simply cannot work the new electric typewriter. A rare smile cracks his macabre visage when Allende’s death is ruled suicide.
Alfredo Castro turns in a tensely nuanced performance as the cadaverous Mario, who seems to have one foot already in the afterlife.
Alfredo Castro turns in a tensely nuanced performance as the cadaverous Mario, who seems to have one foot already in the afterlife. Others ignore Mario unless he addresses them, and at times he fades into the scenery, but he is a driven and conflicted figure, even if his schemes are petty and ineffective. An inverted mirror of Melville’s Bartleby, Mario would very much prefer to, if anyone will let him. The war, like Mario, emerges in a hypnotic slow build from the background of the film, a plot in which there is room for many villains, large and small, and acts of kindness and cruelty both political and personal.
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