Pablo Larrain’s breathtaking visual command makes for enthralling viewing in “Post Mortem,” a rigorous, formally controlled yet emotionally gripping drama set during Chile’s bloody 1973 military coup. Auds willing to engage with the stunning framing will be receptive to the story of a morgue worker and the washed-up showgirl he yearns for, yet the helmer’s deceptively cold style, as well as several sequences held to fidget-inducing lengths, will divide even confirmed arthouse viewers. More daring than “Tony Manero” but also less accessible, “Post Mortem” will need strong crix support to stay alive outside fest showcases.
A spectacular opening offers a taste of the cinematic inventiveness to come, with a shot from the bottom of an army tank noisily crushing an unpopulated plaza littered with debris. It’s a sudden, arresting illustration of the destruction of a nation’s soul: the real subject of the film, brought out via the quasi-metaphorical figure of Mario (Alfredo Castro), a coroner’s assistant who transcribes autopsy reports.
The outwardly emotionless Mario desires his neighbor across the street, a self-enchanted showgirl named Nancy (Antonia Zegers) who’s just been laid off. While he’s driving her home from the nightclub, they’re suddenly surrounded by a leftist demonstration; they view the protesters as a temporary nuisance, hardly deserving a second thought, but Nancy is swept up by her activist friend Victor (Marcelo Alonso), leaving Mario alone.
Nancy’s father uses their house as a meeting place for the unionists, which sends the apolitical woman across to Mario’s place, where she toys with the stiff suitor, their conversation resembling a badminton game as words sail slowly back and forth in almost regular volleys. At dinner she suddenly starts to cry, then he does as well: It’s an odd extended scene shot with a fixed camera, one of several guaranteed to leave some auds feeling that Larrain is perversely playing with them (the pic’s final seven or so minutes will add further fodder). While the meaning is unclear, it furthers the sense of instability and tragedy lurking just around the corner, though its artificiality is problematic.
Some time later, Nancy’s house is ransacked and her father and brother are missing: Larrain keeps the camera on Mario in the shower, with only the horrific noises on the soundtrack clueing auds in to what’s happening across the street. It’s a breathtaking sequence in its originality, and yet hardly the only one in the film.
On his way to work he’s confronted by wrecked cars and empty streets, and once in the morgue, bullet-riddled bodies start piling up. The military arrive, taking Mario, coroner’s assistant Sandra (Amparo Noguera) and their right-leaning boss Dr. Castillo (Jaime Vadell) offsite to perform a very important autopsy.
Scenes that follow are unsparing and chilling, and while Larrain shoots them with a sense of observational detachment, he drives home the full impact of the horrifying brutality of the army takeover. The violence, and the way it quickly conditions those who witness the effects, leeches into Mario’s very being, making him even steelier as it also turns Sandra mad.
Noguera, in only a few scenes, is devastatingly effective, though the film belongs to Castro and his emotionless, specter-like presence. Zegers, too, is fascinating to watch, much like the felines Nancy claims to hate, in the way she stares at people with an expectant, mysterious intensity.
But in many ways the real star of “Post Mortem” is the framing. Larrain uses space in an extraordinary way, forcing the viewer to think about what’s beyond the screen almost constantly, either via astonishingly inventive sound design, or simply by the way he places his figures ina shot.
As with “Tony Manero,” Larrain’s d.p., Sergio Armstrong, uses highly textured 16mm stock to achieve a true 1970s cinematic feel, where pallid faces are made more ghostly by the preponderance of period browns. It’s a world awash in crushed expectations, mutedly livid like the corpses in the morgue, and equally lacking in hope.