Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Post Mortem: Living Among the Dead

Post Mortem
Written Directed By: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Amparo Noguera, and Jaime Vadell
Director of Photography: Sergio Armstrong, Editor: Andrea Chingnoli, Production Designer: Polin Garbizu, Original Music: Joan Cristobal Meza

            The first few sequences of Post Mortem from Chilean director Pablo Larraín immediately invite us into a cryptic world that controls us from the opening shot. We follow Mario, a middle-aged, very quiet and very repressed man, as he stands inside his home. Looking out his window, he spies on his neighbor, a beautiful woman with a boisterous and revealing posture. He follows her to a burlesque show, and then down into the lair underneath the stage to where she lays, where he overhears some dialogue that suggests she may also be a prostitute. He asks if he can drive her home, which she accepts. Why does he do this? Larraín’s camera remains almost still, with composed and exacting shots that keep us focused without revealing any sort of inner detail.

            In many ways, I wished that the rest of Post Mortem would then fill in those details, which ends up being a very puzzling film that mixes the psychological and political. I missed Larraín’s first film, Tony Manero, which followed a killer who dressed up as the Travolta character from Saturday Night Fever. And Post Mortem has a lot to say about Chilean psychology and history, though perhaps it is more aimed at audiences who know more about the uprising that led to Pinochet’s violent and brutal dictatorship. But for audiences (like myself) who go in blind, Larraín certainly has a very unique voice that makes Post Mortem still an interesting look into this confusing and devastating world.

            When he’s not ogling over the delectable prostitute-dancer Nancy, Mario works as a typist for a morgue in Santiago. With deadpan humor, Larraín shows the process as he and his colleagues tear open a body with prickly sounds that made my shoulders twitch. Mario seems ambivalent to the dead around him, even when the bodies begin to pile up as the 1973 revolution begins. He’s more interested in Nancy, inviting her over for dinner while political rebels discuss their plan of action across the street. At the dinner table, Nancy begins silently crying, and then can’t control herself. Mario joins in the wailing, perhaps out of solidarity, or his own strange, unexplained impulses. This is of course followed by sex. Larraín never bothers to explain the actions behind these, or if he does, they are almost too cryptic to pick up on a first viewing. Mario is repressed, but he makes Brandon’s impulses from Shame seem almost natural and casual. 

            I understand Larraín isn’t interested in foregrounding his politics, but the sequences at the morgue as the political chaos builds are the most accessible and fascinating. In one of the oddest moments, Mario drags a cart of bodies into the morgue, and one of them slips off. Left in a Kafkaesque moment, only he can pick up the nameless body and throw it back on the cart. These moments of brutal violence marked by dark humor show off Larraín’s strength, as his camera remains as silent and still as ever, never giving the film a dramatic boost. In a sly move, Mario observes another colleague screaming at the madness and absurdity of the violence around them. But Mario remains silent, almost perplexed by what could be the issue.

            But Post Mortem never spends too much time on this narrative, and returns to the story of Mario and Nancy, which does end with a climatic and brutally frightening long take that once again blends the line of comedy and tragedy. Even if I didn’t like Post Mortem, it marks the note that Larraín is a force to be reckoned with, a director with a keen eye, an austere filmmaking style, and a knack for the comically morose.

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