In Tony Manero (2008), Pablo Larraín explored the corruption of Pinochet-era Chile through the figure of a psychopath fixated on Saturday Night Fever. Post Mortem, the director’s follow-up and companion piece, reaches back a few more years to the military coup that toppled president Salvador Allende in 1973, using another loner — a Santiago morgue worker — as an ingenious window into the human cost of political violence. The new film is more assured and better shaped, less self-conscious in its symbolism and defter in its incorporation of historical context. Though modest in its individual parts, it is devastating in its total impact.
Apparently, a transcriber named Mario Cornejo was present at Allende’s autopsy. From this tidbit, Larraín has extrapolated a fictional story of a middle-aged drone named Mario (Alfredo Castro, the star of the earlier film) who willfully ignores the ominous political unrest roiling around him and concerns himself instead with the routine of his work and his melancholy obsession with his neighbor Nancy (Antonia Zegers), a cabaret dancer. Passive and evasive, Mario has chin-length gray hair that makes his already-long face seem even longer and sadder. He rarely speaks, and instead mostly listens — not just in his official duties as a transcriber, but also in his social interactions, contributing little to conversations and eavesdropping on strangers. While his face indicates that he has thoughts about what’s going on, he isn’t about to tell anyone what they are.
Larraín heightens the story’s tension and disturbance through camera placement and editing, trading in Tony Manero’s grainy handheld look for long, stationary shots that often refuse to cut or even pan to the primary action. Instead, characters move out of (or never enter) the frame or interact with objects that remain offscreen. This creates the sense that something is always happening just out of view, which, in a larger sense, it is. When the action does occur onscreen, it can be equally unsettling, because it plays out in real time. The mundane rhythms of Mario’s existence apply equally to the frying of an egg or the picking up of a corpse that has fallen off a cart piled with a half dozen of them. The approach is somewhat similar to that of Béla Tarr, though Larraín eschews Tarr’s terrible beauty in favor of oppressive, shabby bleakness. Larraín’s previous features relied extensively on music: his first, Fuga, focused on a composer, and Tony Manero was fueled by disco. But Post Mortem doesn’t feature a single note until the closing credits, apart from the dispiriting, synthesized Offenbach that accompanies a can-can at the cabaret.
Post Mortem builds slowly to its traumatic event, focusing on Mario’s dreary routine, which is only enlivened by his awkward involvement with Nancy. His detachment from the mounting upheaval makes him unprepared for the coup (which strikes while he’s in the shower), but ironically this quality facilitates his survival in its aftermath. Finding his few tentative acts of courage thwarted, he retreats into his characteristic blankness and caution. He watches as the army contorts medical protocols to suit its own needs, culminating in Allende’s autopsy.
The adage that the personal is political fits this scenario: although the final atrocity is an act of private vengeance, it encapsulates what’s happening in the country at large. Carried out in a long, uninterrupted, horribly calm take, it unspools for nearly six minutes before cutting off abruptly, as if it might otherwise have kept going forever — as if to remind us that inhumanity will always be with us, perhaps because its roots are so deeply human.