Larrain’s first big international hit came in 2008 with his movie ‘Tony Manero’, which after its success at the New York Film Festival went on to impress audiences on the film festival circuit. The movie takes a sly look back at the 1970s, but rather than celebrating the music and wallowing in nostalgia it adopts a darkly comic and satirical stance as it follows a serial killer obsessed with the seminal movie ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and who has the same name as John Travolta’s character. He even enters a lookalike contest, and it is this quirky yet incisive approach together with snappy dialogue that scooped awards for the actor, Alfredo Castro, and director, Larrain, for his debut production.
Now a Chilean, Witty, stylish and unsettling story Mexican and German co-production, ‘Post Mortem’, follows up the success of ‘Tony Manero’ with a witty, stylish and unsettling story that has all the ingredients of dark humour that characterized its predecessor. In addition, the political background brings it into a familiar relationship with films from neighbouring countries that have experienced political unrest in recent years and channelled these influences into their movies. The result is an eclectic mix of genres that somehow works very well.
‘Post Mortem’ tells the story of a nondescript and timid autopsy clerk who has a secret passion for his neighbour from across the street, a dancer whose boyfriend belongs to the Popular Front. The background to the movie is Chile at the time of the Allende government, at the point where it is about to be forcibly toppled by yet another military coup. Alfredo Castro again stars, this time making a compelling appearance as the mortician, with Antonia Zegers as the object of his desire, Nancy the cabaret dancer. As is the case with many Latin American films, notably the recent ‘Zona Sur’, directed by Juan Carlos Valdivia (2009), the unsettled domestic situation – in this case the mismatched pair – becomes a microcosmic reflection of and symbol for the upheavals taking place in the wider society.
Close-ups bring a palpable sense of menace Close-ups bring a palpable sense of menace and impending tragedyand impending tragedy to the couple’s relationship as Larrain uses wide-screen cinematography and long tracking shots to build up the tension. The performances are subdued, and this only adds to the sense of menace, and the overall cumulative effect is to involve the audience deeply in the dysfunctional relationship of these two characters and involve them on an increasingly emotional level against a threatening and violent backdrop of political turmoil.
The movie is essentially about a love affair between two losers, against a backdrop of the 1973 military coup, and the emphasis is on understatement. The originality of the plot, with a low-key love affair between a nightclub dancer and a mortician, both somewhat socially inadequate, is a twist on the normal route for revisiting this troubled and still controversial period in Chile’s recent history. It is helpful to the viewer to brush up on Chile’s history at the time before seeing it, but on the other hand the same could be said for any historical drama. Some background knowledge always helps with any film of this kind.
Digging into a third world country’s past for the enrichment that comes from extra Made to reflect on the transience of life, the vacuity of powerknowledge about historical backgrounds is not too attractive an activity for the average cinema audience, and most films of this kind tend to remain on the festival circuit.
There are a few notable exceptions, but unless the universally-understood and appreciated central message is there, the movie tends to attract a very niche audience. Hopefully, the message is loud and clear in ‘Post Mortem’, which has already attracted much international critical acclaim. Although most of the big events from the history of that period in Chile take place off-screen it’s pretty easy to infer what is going on.
The high point of the film is the restrained central scene, in which the staff at the mortuary are ordered to perform an autopsy on Allende’s assassinated body, as military officers look on. In the slow and precise movements of the camera, with close-ups and wide panning, the audience is effectively made to reflect on themes such as the transience of life, the vacuity of power, and the manifold ways in which humans cause pain to one another.