(Pablo Larrain, 2010)
There is a peculiarly subtle beauty to Post Mortem, Pablo Larrain's second attempt to address the moral degradation of Chile during the military coup and subsequent dictatorship of the late 1970s and 1980s. The first act is a wonky, obtuse sort of relationship drama with shards of blackest comedy. Larrain stages scenes elliptically, enigmatically, his superb compositional sense and the sickly yellow caste of each image ensuring that his film is visually arresting from the off. But as we watch protagonist Pablo stumble through a sad pursuit of his neighbour, Nancy, a fading, bitter cabaret dancer, we are made aware of the powerful forces moving beneath the narrative. The first shot in the film, after all, is a moving shot from a camera mounted in the undercarraige of a tank, which plants a seed of disquiet instantly. There are later references to protests - Pablo and Nancy drive straight into a march - overheard political conversations, characters showing unexpected passion in reference to public events, and most chillingly a flash-forward to Pablo transcribing Nancy's autopsy, a scene that grants power to moments like the one when he warns her to be careful as they dine - somewhat baffled by the menu - in a Chinese restaurant after she has angrily commented to a watress. But Larrain denies us context and withholds explanation; the flash forward sits in the middle of the narrative, unacknowledged, unheralded. The political issues are never articulated or described. Things are hinted at and suggested, no more. The strange isolation of Pablo and Nancy's faltering relationship is reflected in the rhythms of their conversations and Larrain's staging of them and underlines how removed they are from wider events.
Then the turn comes and the horror begins to grow. The State mortuary where Pablo works is slowly overwhelmed, corpses begin to fill the corridors. Nancy's house is raided, her family abducted, while Pablo showers only a few metres away (in a neat though somewhat on-the-nose metaphor) unable to hear anything. By the film's climax we are aware that Pablo's new moral corruption is entirely in keeping with that of Chile itself and Larrain's calm, eeriily smooth camera takes it all in; the empty streets, the piles of bodies on metal trollies, the generals at the autopsy of the deposed President, whose head is open at the skull, revealing a mass of gore; and the emotional explosion of Pablo's colleague, Sandra at the relentless tide of death brought to them.
Through all this Pablo remains something of an enigma, a ghost of a man, pale and lonely, only really revealing the depth of his feelings for Nancy in the incredible extended final shot when he decides her fate, and his own. Alfredo Castro carries much of the film as Pablo, his watery eyes and weary body language extremely expressive of this man trying to keep his head down and grab hold of love while his world destroys itself, while Antonia Zegers makes Nancy a complex, believable human being.
The true star here, however, is director Larrain, whose grasp of framing, pacing and mood are hypnotically persuasive and give this film a slowly building power which is quite unexpected and extremely impressive.