PRINT March 2012


Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem

Pablo Larraín, Post Mortem, 2010, still from a color film in 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, 98 minutes. Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro).

ETIOLATING LIGHT turns Chile into a nation of wraiths in Post Mortem, Pablo Larraín’s baleful allegory set at the time of the US-backed coup that deposed Salvador Allende in 1973. “Nothing can escape the wheel of history,” Dr. Castillo, chief coroner and dialectician at a Santiago hospital, proclaims early in the film, a point made literal in Mortem’s first image, a pulverizing long take from the undercarriage of an army tank as it grinds its way down a debris-strewn avenue. The film’s two self-absorbed protagonists do their best to ignore the imminence of history, falling into a catatonic love affair amid the escalating chaos. Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro), a sallow, lank-haired morgue assistant with deadened eyes—less Thin White Duke than ashen Nosferatu—furtively dotes on Nancy Puelma (Antonia Zegers), the anorexic cabaret dancer from across the way. (The film could be called The Mortician and the Showgirl.) Apolitical and indifferent, even as Nancy’s father uses their home as a clandestine base for Communist activists, the two life-ravaged neighbors edge into a relationship—he out of erotic obsession, she out of neurosis and inertia—their verbal exchanges over fried egg and rice or Peking duck as scant as their gaunt bodies. Theirs is a romance of cadavers.

Larraín, who hails from a right-wing family of great wealth and political power, returns to the subjects he explored in his previous film, Tony Manero (2008), about a pathological John Travolta imitator intent on winning a disco-dancing contest during the reign of Pinochet: the psychosis of fascism, the violence of the impassive and disappointed, the horrors of history played out as performance. Taming Tony’s frantic whip pans, extreme shallow- or out-of-focus images, jump cuts, and fast tracking follow shots in favor of a more concentrated and implacable style, Larraín shoots in wide-screen 16 mm, blown up to 35 mm, employing late-’60s Russian Lomo lenses, reportedly used by Tarkovsky, to achieve Post Mortem’s ghostly pallor, the film’s blanching light by turns milky and clinical. (Mario helpfully dresses in spectral shades of beige, bone, and off-white.) “They were old, fucked-up, and really hard to use,” Larraín said about the antique lenses. “If you touched them, they’d crumble. But they were great. People think we spent ages in postproduction to get that pale image, but our whole ‘technique’ was not to do anything.”

The director did much, however, in his visual and sound design to emphasize what he calls the “enigma” of the 1973 coup, the persistent mysteries surrounding a cataclysm that happened before he was born but whose aftermath he lived through. Little in the film is seen whole or unobstructed, its compositions often impeding our view or frustrating comprehension. For instance, the sequence in which Mario and Nancy dine at a Chinese restaurant, clueless as to the nature of spring rolls or wontons—a marker of cultural provincialism, like the grubby Bim-Bam-Bum cabaret with its outdated cancan numbers—begins with the back of Nancy’s head belligerently blocking our sight line to Mario’s face. Larraín obscures, crops, and truncates the image, and leaves major events offscreen, frequently indicating them only by sound. Mario’s morning shower masks the barrage outside his bathroom window—a fighter jet, shattering glass, a dog’s relentless barking—auditory insulation signaling his willed obliviousness. (The filmmaker often resorts to liminal camera placement, leaving his Arriflex parked in a room or car, peering out as events unfold in the street, framed by a doorway or window.)

Larraín took the name and occupation of his antihero from a coroner’s assistant who was present at Allende’s autopsy, though the director has said that mood counts more for him than historical facts. As in Tony Manero, Larraín indulges a taste for the fetid—the greasy rat tail on Nancy’s balding boss, the gray chunk of gristle that Mario spits out in the lunchroom—and for emotional extremes: Mario passionately hugging Nancy’s mop-haired kid brother in what seems more than gratitude, or the two lovers succumbing to a snot-nosed crying jag at their first meal together. Larraín’s penchant for mixing the oblique and the blatant—the film’s title obviously announces a dissection of the body politic—becomes more pronounced in Post Mortem’s second half, as the carnage from the coup begins to mount, corpses stacking up in the corridors of the hospital. (At this point, the film’s creepy humor darkens into Holocaust burlesque.) Mario, who thrice refers to his vocation as “functionary,” finds himself official recorder at Allende’s autopsy, a shocking sequence filmed on the actual site of the operation, complete with original dissecting table. (The camera chillingly lingers on a large ladle on the table of coroner’s instruments.) Theater takes on a double meaning as both medical and performative space, an arena of scientific examination and political stagecraft. Mario allows a wan smile at the grotesque spectacle before reverting to his usual vacuity.

In a final instance of metaphor making, Larraín fixes the camera’s inexorable stare for six minutes on a Poe-like act of immurement. (A puzzling sequence early in the film suddenly makes sense as a flash-forward.) Like Bernardo Bertolucci’s repressed conformist, the priggish Mario, who once rejected his coworker’s advances because he deemed her sleeping with other men “bad, very bad,” reveals his inner fascist, methodically walling up the past, at one with the new regime.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.