“Congratulations. You now serve the Chilean Army.”
Taking the formula he used in Tony Manero one step further, writer/director Pablo Larraín‘s Venice Film Festival Golden Lion award-winning film Santiago 73, post mortem [Post Mortem] assures the world he is a director worth your time. Retaining his trademark shooting style that lingers way longer than comfort should allow, we are thrust into the action by sifting through its aftermath. Always hearing destruction off-screen or seeing it on the edges of the frame, it’s the methodical tracking shots through empty streets with blown-up cars and smashed windows that admit the level of hostilities at play. With Pinochet’s military coup d’état usurping socialist President Salvador Allende in full force, every Chilean in Santiago is forced to choose whether to survive or become one more body on the pile.
Still crafting a darkly violent tale against the backdrop of political turmoil, main character Mario (Alfredo Castro) finds himself unwittingly becoming part of the revolution itself. Through his job as an autopsy transcriber, this meek civil servant ends up on the frontlines despite wanting nothing more than a quiet life with the girl of his dreams. As such, the film delivers both the start and finish of his relationship to an aging burlesque dancer named Nancy (Antonia Zegers) before rewinding to show how the rebellion pushes them towards their tragic end. Wound tight in emotional knots, the two are a perfectly strange pair besides their disparate natures. After all, it’s no coincidence their first encounter not involving Mario skulking a peek from afar finishes with her being whisked away into the thralls of a Communist Youth protest rally.
There’s no arguing Act One of Post Mortem doesn’t take a bit to finally take off, but the payoff is definitely worth the wait. As we watch Mario’s unorthodox courting of Nancy by sneaking—a loose term since it appears Chile has no boundaries where privacy is concerned—into her dressing room, we become introduced to local sights in a meaningful way so that our revisiting them post-coup can carry weight. Refusing to let the destroyed buildings and motionless characters be mere random scenery, Larraín takes special care with what he chooses to show. Every detail put to film has been carefully calculated for the largest possible impact. Having Nancy’s boss extort Mario’s car or showing her father answer the phone for a brief minute are by no means mistakes. Each frame is a personalized view through Mario’s eyes with not one hair out of place.
So, when a shower causes the morgue employee to miss hearing loud barks and mangled glass, his surprise at the empty house across the street is the same as ours. With Nancy gone and no one around to explain what has happened, Mario’s quest to retrieve her begins. Taking him closer to both the Communist sympathizers of his girlfriend’s acquaintances and the military now pulling his boss Dr. Castillo’s (Jaime Vadell) strings, we too get mixed up in the insanity as the body count mounts. Playing each side for whatever advantage he can muster, Mario’s survival finds itself hinging on toeing the company line and staying in the shadows with little recognition. As co-worker Sandra (Amparo Noguera) begins to crack at the seams under the immense pressure, he must keep it together if he ever wishes to reunite with Nancy for the happily ever after of his fantasies.
Castro—creepier than ever—again transforms himself into the sort of wallflower possessed by the power to remain hidden in plain sight as well as change the entire tone of the film. Sexually frustrated, introverted to a fault, and full of pent up aggression unleashed in the form of passively violent bursts, his Mario is easy to dismiss until shown disrespect. A dangerous man due to his chameleon-like blank face aligning with whoever is in close proximity, this lack of personality allows him to deftly move from one to the other without revealing his true intent. Motivated by love alone, he follows orders and stays quiet when going off book so as to deflect suspicion. A fly-on-the-wall during what’s quite possibly the biggest event in Chilean history, there is no more perfect creature to witness this real life power play through.
And unlike his previous movie, Larraín isn’t about to stick with metaphors and leave its driving force of oppression to the side. No, the facts about September 11, 1973 remain intact down to the debate of whether Allende committed suicide or was murdered. Another history lesson bathed in a fictionalized dark pool of blood, Post Mortem puts us in the middle of the action as ourselves—regular human beings watching as the world crumbles. But no matter how crucial it is to create an authentic view of the day, the driving force remains Castro and Zeger’s undefined union. Watching her Rachel continue to want, want, and want while Mario jumps at every request makes us realize how pathetic he is beneath the steely exterior. It’s his acknowledgement of the same, however, that culminates into the brilliantly mundane, five-plus minute static shot of furniture piling in a chillingly pitch-perfect finale.