Everyone and everything is either dead or dying in Chilean director Pablo Larraín's "Post Mortem," a chilling exploration of the 1973 Pinochet coup soaked in metaphor but rooted in dreadful fact. The movie's star, Alfredo Castro, watches nonplussed as the mounting dictatorship gradually surrounds him, his lanky figure and blank expression creating the appearance of a Frankenstein's monster constructed from the wreckage of a crumbled society.
"Post Mortem" functions as a kind of spiritual prequel to Larraín's previous feature, the delirious black comedy "Tony Manero," which took place in the midst of the Pinochet dictatorship and also starred Castro in an unsettling performance taken to a different sort of extreme. In "Tony Manero," Castro played an obvious maniac obsessed with "Saturday Night Fever" and intent on winning a John Travolta impersonation contest. Both zany and shockingly lurid, "Tony Manero" satirized a country driven to the point of insanity and forced into denial about it. He was a blunt symbol, but so incredible to watch that the allegory took on a highly expressionistic quality.
With "Post Mortem," Larraín adopts a subtler approach. The reclusive mortician's assistant Castro embodies in "Post Mortem," a straight-faced oddball named Mario Cornejo, is no a blatant lunatic but evidently seems quite disturbed and repressed. Slaving away in a morgue where he transcribes the grotesque details of autopsies with robotic efficiency, he has no immediate outlet to display his humanity; Larraín only gives the character an opportunity for respite once it's too late. When Mario tries to romance the indifferent exotic dancer (Antonia Zegers) from across the street, his confused display of macho affection makes it clear that he has no salient connection to the outside world. If the Addams family adopted Napoleon Dynamite, he might grow into Mario.
As a character study, "Post Mortem" conveys the plight of a middle aged loner with considerable intrigue, although Mario's inscrutable face lends a certain one-note feel to the proceedings. Initially, that works to a mesmerizing degree in the opening minutes, when Mario wanders unnoticed into the backroom of a performance hall and watches the object of his affection from afar. He has such a ghostly presence that it's surprising when she eventually notices him.
Just when Mario's awkward attempts at romance grow exhausting, however, Larraín gets around to his larger agenda with the inevitable arrival of the coup in an outbreak of mass violence that leaves trails of corpses all over town. Although the filmmaker announces this militant development in the opening shot, with the camera embedded beneath the wheels of a tank, "Post Mortem" ventures so deep into Mario's psyche that the eventual overthrow takes on secondary importance alongside Mario's relationship problems. That's the movie's own impressive coup: The face of those oppressed by the Pinochet dictatorship as well as the generations raised in its shadow, he's in perpetual denial about the reality around him.
That would make "Post Mortem" into a terribly on-the-nose affair were it not for the way Larraín extends Mario's unnervingly introverted mannerisms to the world around him. The emptiness of the streets following the coup–photographed, like everything else, with a drab, grayish palette to convey the encroaching darkness–call to mind the similarly desolate cityscape of "Omega Man," pushing the circumstances into nightmarish terrain. While Mario amounts to a nutty character stuck in a drab, undercooked scenario, each moment feels weighted with offscreen meaning. He's never entirely with it, the likelihood he'll lose whatever mind he had in the first place made evident from the first scenes, but that same eventuality imbues "Post Mortem" with a supremely dour quality.
The movie does come to life with fits of action, but Larraín smothers these moments as quickly as they arrive. On his first dinner with the girl of his dreams, Mario breaks down in tears as the two inexplicably bawl their eyes out, putting into bawls everything about their situation that words can't express. Minutes later, he's back to his low key self. Because "Post Mortem" assumes Mario's perspective without telling us much about him, Larraín's muted storytelling is occasionally problematic, but also the source of the movie's haunting atmosphere.
The emphasis on uneasiness pays off, so to speak, when Mario gets tasked with transcribing the eventual autopsy of late Chilean leader Salvador Allende. The scene hints at the conspiracy theory that Allende's reported suicide was a fiction created by the new government after it killed him off. Mario's name, according to the filmmaker, was taken from official documentation of the autopsy, which inspired the screenplay. The character's symbolic value matters less than the implications of his personal culpability in a cover-up. He's not a zombie or a blank slate but a tool. "Post Mortem" portrays the specter of dictatorship through the lens of one man's private hell.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "Post Mortem" opens on Wednesday at Film Forum a couple of years after its initial festival run. Solid reviews and interest in Larraín's work from his previous feature should attract some interest, but the strange, dark material will prevent it from landing an extended run. It will do most of its business on DVD.