Post Mortem (15)

A political drama is spoiled by half-dead characters, writes Ryan Gilbey.

Post Mortem (15)
dir: Pablo Larraín

The Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín has made for himself the very definition of a niche. If it is an acrid analysis of his country's violent past that you desire, no other director will do. His last film, Tony Manero, told of a middle-aged Saturday Night Fever obsessive whose arbitrary acts of violence and intimidation symbolised the larger crimes being committed by General Augusto Pinochet. The follow-up, Post Mortem, delves further back in Chilean history to the 1973 coup d'état that overthrew Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power. The opening sequence, shot from beneath a tank as it grinds through deserted streets, provides a dynamic evocation of the dread that must have prevailed.

This political tumult is observed from the sidelines by Mario (Alfredo Castro), a coroner's stenographer nursing a crush on his neighbour Nancy (Antonia Zegers). Nancy's gaunt appear­ance has earned her the sack from her job as a showgirl, while Mario would do well to maintain constant movement in the workplace in order to distinguish himself from the bodies on the slab. They are both so cadaverous that what little desire passes between them is necrophilia in all but name.

At least Nancy has some investment, however tenuous, in the anti-military resistance. Her home is a meeting-place for radicals, including her boyfriend, Victor (Marcelo Alonso), who is handsome and motivated where Mario is craven. Nancy asks Mario if he is scared of purgatory, but her description of it ("Burning in the flames of hell and never dying") sounds like a fair appraisal of the country that is disintegrating around them. Like Jacob's Ladder or the 1985 film of Peter Carey's Bliss, Post Mortem encourages us to ask whether the action is even taking place on our plane.

Death here is a state that the living can approximate if they devote themselves fully enough to looking the other way. Larraín's point about how complacency leads to spiritual decay is well made by keeping spectacle off screen at all times and showing only the aftermath. When a raid on Nancy's home takes place, Mario is in his home across the street, oblivious to the sound of breaking glass and barking dogs. When the corpses start piling up at the hospital, he seems as mildly inconvenienced as someone whose in tray is stacked higher than usual. The cruel and protracted final shot also insinuates horror, concealing any nastiness behind a locked door.

The use of camerawork to express psychology is masterful, and is further heightened by the absence of all music and most colours (the film's palette runs the short distance from beige to taupe). The camera acts like a coroner, carving up the actors' bodies with the edges of the screen. In the closing moments, the one person left on screen is essentially decapitated by the cropped frame. A sex scene is shot as a single joyless, tilted close-up of Nancy's chest and face. We assume that Mario is the second participant because he was featured in the preceding scene, but for all we know it could be Pinochet just out of shot.

Accomplished though Larraín's films are, there is a slight sense that he may have already painted himself into a claustrophobic corner. Post Mortem is undeniably chilling, but it would have gained urgency if there had been any ambiguity about Mario's inner life. Castro is a subtly sinister actor: when you gaze, or flinch, at his tombstone face, oily locks, implacable eyes and sourpuss lips, you can picture him being pushed to the top of the wish-list for a future Bond villain. Yet this means that the mystery of whether Mario is a worm that will turn, or merely a worm that will turn out to be a snake, is pretty much settled from the start of the film (and even sooner for anyone who saw Castro in Tony Manero).

The danger of showing characters who are dead to begin with is that their fates can seem both preordained and negligible. Generations of viewers who have endured Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini's dead-eyed critique of fascism, will attest to that. Granted, Post Mortem is a knockabout comedy compared to Saló, but then so are most films, short of Shoah.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires