It is an historical moment that resonates deeply with me, so please forgive the repetition; on September 11, 1973, the Chilean army, under the direction of General Augusto Pinochet, carried out a a coup d’état against the democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende. Allende, a physician elected by the working class voters he adored to bring socialist economic reform to Chile, gave a rousing speech on Chilean radio as Pinochet’s forces were closing in on him. I’ve always found it to be profoundly moving:
“My friends, surely this will be the last opportunity for me to address you. The Air Force has bombed the antennas of Radio Magallanes. My words do not have bitterness but disappointment. May they be a moral punishment for those who have betrayed their oath: soldiers of Chile, titular commanders in chief, Admiral Merino, who has designated himself Commander of the Navy, and Mr. Mendoza, the despicable general who only yesterday pledged his fidelity and loyalty to the Government, and who also has appointed himself Chief of the Carabineros [paramilitary police]. Given these facts, the only thing left for me is to say to workers: I am not going to resign! Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them that I am certain that the seeds which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever. They have force and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested by neither crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history.
…In our country fascism has been already present for many hours — in terrorist attacks, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railroad tracks, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to act. They were committed. History will judge them. Surely Radio Magallanes will be silenced, and the calm metal instrument of my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to his country. The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves. The people must not let themselves be destroyed or riddled with bullets, but they cannot be humiliated either. Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again and free men will walk through them to construct a better society.
Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!” –Salvadore Allende
Soon after this speech was broadcast, Allende took his own life (although many dispute that claim, believing instead that Allende was murdered) and Pinochet’s regime began a reign of terror that lasted for seventeen years.
This is the moment that re-shaped Chilean history forever and it also remains the crucial moment that continues to haunt Chilean cinema. I wrote recently of my affection for Patricio Guzman’s beautiful documentary Nostalgia For The Light, and I have also written in the past of my deep admiration for the director Pablo Larraín and his film Tony Manero which, set some five years after Pinochet’s coup, defines the nexus of political apathy and psychopathology of life under a dictatorship. Larraín’s new film, Post Mortem, the second in a trilogy he is making with the great actor Alfredo Castro, is a devastating recounting of the September 11th coup, set to the rhythms of another apathetic antihero named Mario (Castro, who seems to have no other form but world class). Mario spends his days as a civil servant, working as a medical recorder in a morgue, and the rest of his time pining for Nancy (Antonia Zegers), a burlesque performer whose family and lovers are involved in the left-wing support for Allende’s government. Mario is head-over-heels in love with Nancy, and when she finally returns his affection (in a hilarious scene set at a very emotional dinner table), there is no way back; he is smitten. Soon, history (and Nancy’s own sexual liberation) conspires to destroy Mario’s dream; after her home is bombed by the army during the coup, Nancy goes missing, and Mario begins a search to find her among the newly-minted ruins of Santiago.
At the same time, Mario’s job has just become much more complicated; the army has taken over the hospital, unloading piles of dead bodies into the morgue, each a civilian who has been murdered by the army for supporting Allende. As the bodies multiply at work, Mario discovers Nancy hiding in the cellar of her house; his romantic thrill is tempered by her indifference to his advances. The film hurtles forward when Mario and his colleagues, in a staggering sequence, are called in by the army to perform an autopsy on Allende himself; Larraín plays the moment for slapstick laughs (the gag involves an electric typewriter), but the oppressive sense of powerlessness has escalated to an almost unbearable pitch. Mario’s masculinity, his subtle but ever-present machismo, is built upon his sentimental morality (“I would never sleep with a woman who sleeps with another man,” he says early in the film) and, as the parade of political violence continues to destroy the sanity of his work, he makes an unsettling discovery that sends him on the road to committing his own atrocity.
Post Mortem maintains the grainy, 16mm texture of Tony Manero and extends that film’s exploration of the equation between masculine ego and political murder; both Tony and Mario wear their private dreams and fantasies as indifferent accessories to the terrifying upheaval that surrounds them, an extension of the permissive disregard for human life that engulfs the Chilean social order and seems to destroy the possibility for rational engagement. Which is not to say that the indescribable, deeply personal violence that takes place in both films is somehow legitimized by the collapse of democratic values, but more that the character’s violence is nothing more than a pathetic echo of the same totalitarian impulse that ripped the nation apart. Larraín draws his equations with sly staging and pitch back humor, using the frame to constantly dimish Mario’s stature and isolate him in his surroundings (this time, eschewing the handheld, prowling intimacy of Tony Manero for a fixed camera and some beautiful framing), and utilizing the sound design to keep us close to Mario’s experience of being almost completely outside of the history exploding around him; when the army arrives at Nancy’s house, Mario is in his own shower, blissfully unaware of the chaos that rages just outside of the frame. Castro’s Mario is a quiet, otherwise anonymous man who does what he is told and experiences his deepest feelings in a state of private suppression, able to eat a constant stream of shit from his superiors and his circumstances until, broken hearted by a quid pro quo transaction that destroys his romantic idealism, he simply snaps.
It is clear that Larraín takes a perverse pleasure in showing Chilean society the price of its own self-absorbed compliance with its political past; while people have a tendency to want to move forward toward the future, there remain those piles of corpses who never got the chance. How to deal with them, with the violence, with the image of a President lying dead in an anonymous office, the top of his skull missing? It can’t simply be the case that life just “goes on.” Instead, Larraín insists upon exposing the complicity of inaction by tying it to the fantasies of his tragic psychopaths. In Tony Manero, Tony’s petty competitiveness and small time dreams made his crimes into masterpieces of black comedy, where the stakes are so low that the depths of depravity seem to be even more outrageous and indecent; who takes the time to shit on another man’s disco suit when the secret police are coming to take him away? Post Mortem inverts this equation by immersing Mario in the innumerable corpses of young people, all of whom were murdered for their political beliefs; it makes his final act seem so small, so tragic, so vain, but it also provides a scale of humiliation and suffering so overwhelming that a small, tragic act of vanity becomes comprehensible.
I was absolutely devastated by Post Mortem, by its visceral immediacy and its brilliant rendering of one of the most traumatic times any nation has ever faced. If Tony Manero traded in a transactional world where murder and bartering bring the protagonist tantalizingly close to achieving his pathetically small ambitions, then Post Mortem exists at the intersection of personal, professional and political destruction on a grand dramatic scale that seems to be something straight out of a Kafkan nightmare. And so, while small, meagre Mario gets his revenge upon the woman who broke his heart, the machines of war carry on around him, as indifferent to his solitude as he is to their devastation. The silent contract is sanctioned.
If you’re interested (and I hope you are), you can watch the trailer for the film here.