It helps if you do your homework prior to watching Pablo Larrain’s 2010 drama Post Mortem. It’s a film that makes the viewer work, and if you’re not up to speed on your modern Chilean history, you’re not going to get the full experience. But then, wonderful movies are like wonderful records in that respect; the more effort you invest, the greater the punch behind each nuance, each inflection.
Set in the days leading up to Pinochet’s 1973 neo-fascist putsch, the narrative tackles headline events with an oblique slant; this isn’t so much about left versus right, even if the director’s political persuasions are never masked. Instead, the focus settles upon Mario, a pathologist’s assistant (played by Alfredo Castro). Mario is a difficult, ambiguous character; remote, contemplative and softly-spoken, but suggestive of sinister undertones – hazy allusions only enhanced by Castro’s striking physical presence.
There’s a degree of the dysfunctional to all of Mario’s relationships, echoing wider events. It’s there in his interaction with work colleagues, but especially in the interplay with neighbour Nancy, a highly-strung, failing showgirl. There’s an atmosphere of the sleazy ingrained in the portrayals – something voyeuristic and obsessional – and under clumsier direction this darkness would have been overplayed. Instead there’s a taught tenderness to their unfolding relationship, even as both characters are dragged towards the emerging political crisis
This is a dark and claustrophobic film, and considering such subject matter it couldn’t fail to include moments that are truly disturbing. But there are moments of beauty too, scenes driven by jet black comedy, by an evocative sense of 1970’s shabbiness. What is particularly striking, however – and it’s a motif present throughout the film – is the story’s naturalistic pace. Qualities of meditation, events allowed to move at very much their own speed. The long periods of contemplation, the constant pauses in dialogue allow room for a clever application of sound; spaces filled not with musical accompaniment but by waves of ambient sound. Refrigerators buzz, electric lights hum, dogs yap, and only when events take darker turns does this soundtrack slip into the background.
I’m not sure what it is about Spanish language cinema that’s so wonderful – maybe it’s simply something cultural that implies dexterity of medium – but this is another mesmerizing addition to the canon. Strong performances (Antonia Zegers as Nancy is equally as beguiling as Alfredo Castro), haunting scenes – Post Mortem is a film that burrows into perception. Watch it.
Post Mortem is out in UK cinemas round about now – well, about five UK cinemas, but there’ll be a DVD out soon.