In 2008, Chilean director Pablo Larraín made waves with the release of a film called Tony Manero about a serial killer obsessed with the character in Saturday Night Fever from which the film got its name. Just this year, Larraín’s newest work, No, was one of the bigger critical hits of the Toronto International Film Festival. I haven’t seen No but descriptions of it lead me to believe that it is the most overtly political film of Larraín’s career. However, I doubt that it is in fact any more concerned with politics in its heart than Post Mortem, a very dark take on the romantic comedy that also unfolds during the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and installed Augusto Pinochet at Chile’s leader.
Alfredo Castro plays Mario, a clerk at the local morgue. His job consists of sitting in a chair while autopsies unfold and copying down everything the doctor says. It’s a task that requires him to maintain an indifferent composure in the face of horrifying sites and actions. This skill will be both a boon and curse in the days to come. Mario, who lives alone, becomes fixated on his neighbor, Nancy Puelma, a high-strung burlesque dancer. On September 11, 1973, the day the coup begins, Nancy disappears. So does everyone else on Mario’s street – with the exception of a wounded dog – but Mario is concerned only with Nancy. He searches for her but also continues to report to his job, which becomes more and more fraught as the new military rulers have conscribed him and his colleagues into assisting them with the ever-increasing death toll.
Mario’s self-imposed solitude and lack of readable emotional response could perhaps be a stand-in for those who would stubbornly insist on remaining apolitical no matter what effects of the outside world come crashing through their windows. The only change Mario welcomes is the addition of Nancy into his life and, without indulging in spoilers, that does not go smoothly. Mostly, Mario attempts to maintain his world. When he sews up the wounded dog, one gets the impressions he’s doing so not out of compassion but simply to restore order. Accustomed to taking autopsy notes in shorthand, he is at a complete loss when asked to perform his duties on a typewriter. He does not, however, lose his head. He is consistently placid, even when his coworker Sandra (a fantastic Amparo Noguera in the film’s best performance) breaks down in one of the centerpiece scenes.
Larraín reflects the nature of his subject’s personality in the film’s style. The camera mostly remains locked down. When it does move, it moves deliberately with a pan or a dolly shot. As a natural result of this style, the comedy here is undeniably deadpan. Since the success of Wes Anderson, this comedic approach has become annoyingly commonplace but it works in Post Mortem for the simple reason that it emerges organically from the lead character.
Mario’s inability to adapt to change – or to acknowledge it even when it is killing people right in front of him and blowing up houses on his street – probably keeps him alive. But it also makes him miserable in ways that reveal themselves as deeper and more systemic as the film goes on. When things finally do come to a head, his reaction could not be described as bombastic or histrionic. Still, given how little we’ve seen him react to things thus far makes the fact that he does so gripping to behold.