Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Post Mortem

Having forged a successful partnership on Tony Moreno, director Pablo Larrain and star Alfredo Castro have once again joined forces to film their latest collaboration, Post Mortem. Like their first movie together, the setting is 1970s Chile during the conflict which saw communist president Salvador Allende deposed in a bloody coup.

Post Mortem’s central protagonist is Mario, a typist in a Santiago morgue. His job is to record the coroner’s notes as he performs his autopsies. He’s a lank-haired ghost of a man whose emotions barely seem to register on his inarticulate face. Despite this, Mario falls deeply for his neighbour Nancy, an ageing burlesque star in a local vaudeville theatre.

Mario conducts a low-key pursuit of Nancy, finally persuading her to join him in a strangely dispassionate relationship. Their burgeoning romance (if that’s what it is) is completely derailed, however, by the political unrest in Chile. It transpires that Nancy’s home is being used by a communist group – and in a sudden burst of violence, she disappears and bodies begin to pile up in the morgue.

Soon, Mario is at the very heart of the tumult, as he and his medical colleagues are forced to perform autopsies in front of the military – including that of a hugely important figure. As his working life becomes increasingly dangerous and harrowing, Mario’s world begins to unravel – culminating in a shocking discovery at Nancy’s home…

Alfredo Castro looks like he was born to play the role of Mario. His long, greasy hair hangs limply around his pallid face, his eyes bulge just too far from his skull, and the lines in his face are just a little too deep. He resembles one of the corpses he watches being dismembered. And his mannerisms are similar to the dead bodies, too: he barely moves and is almost entirely passive. At times, he is invisible to all but the audience.

An early scene sees Mario leaving his seat in the theatre and making his way backstage to Nancy’s dressing room. Despite making no attempt to disguise himself, he is easily able to walk up the stage stairs and through crowds of disinterested actors and dancers. Not one of them registers his presence. Initially, it seems implausible that this could be allowed to happen. But, as more is learned about Mario, it becomes apparent that he has lived almost invisibly for a long time.

That he blends so efficiently into the background is testament to the film’s visual style. Save for some brightly coloured cars, Post Mortem’s Santiago has been drained of all vibrancy. Instead, each frame is saturated with a grey-green hue which enables the unobtrusive Mario to hide even in plain sight.

Where the film is less successful is in its central relationship. The suggestion is that these two flawed characters have somehow found solace in each other – a long scene in which they openly weep together hints at their mutual unhappiness, and is followed immediately by an uncomfortably long take of Nancy’s face and breasts as she has perfunctory sex with Mario. Both scenes are very difficult to watch. But whilst Mario’s pursuit of the showgirl is understandable, Nancy’s toleration of his advances is harder to fathom – although it does make the surprise denouement more understandable.

There’s no redemption for Mario here. Rather than rising up heroically, he instead becomes increasingly redundant as the movie progresses. He’s bullied by Nancy’s boss, shown to be utterly incapable of impressing his personality on any number of situations, and, ultimately, proves incapable of fulfilling his own role in the political proceedings. Despite being put at the heart of the coup, he fails to make any impact on proceedings.

On two occasions, he is offered the opportunity to do some good. On both occasions, he takes the cowardly way out – most notably when he watches mutely as a female colleague attempts to make a stand against the ruling military. Her bravery is a direct contrast with his cowardice and underlines how difficult a character he is to warm to. Even the brief flicker of a smile which crosses his face during the key post mortem is difficult to credit to him – he’s surely smirking on director Carrain’s behalf. Even when he finally exacts his silent revenge on a world which has treated him cruelly, it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for him.

Ultimately, Post Mortem is a stylishly made film with a sharp political edge. But unless you have an interest in Chilean history, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a great deal to interest you here. The central character is unsympathetic (although very well acted), the tone relentlessly grey and the pacing so slow as to be almost dreary.

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