Post Mortem is a Chilean film concerned with the 1973 Pinochet coup and how it effects the life of a mortuary assistant Mario (Alfredo Castro), who seems to be dead already. It’s a slow and meditative film about the horror of violent insurrection as well as an off-kilter and doom-laden love story.
The film is, in some ways, a ghost story though without any overt supernatural elements. Despite being set in a violent time, the film details the life of a quiet and solitary man who mostly keeps his head down. The coup, when it begins midway through the film, is left unseen. Indeed, Mario himself never sees it, only the after effects in a grotesque sequence in which the mortuary floor is littered with bodies because there is nowhere else to put them. It is a sequence that should appear silly and over the top but for the fact that it is, ultimately, all too likely. Post Mortem is a serious film about violent revolution and the danger that your opinions may cause. His superior, who is heard expressing left-wing sympathies before becoming, following the coup, a quiet servant of the new regime, typifies this silencing of opinions. And whilst no collaborator, Mario finds himself working for the revolutionaries and even assisting on what the film suggests is the whitewash autopsy of their dead president, Salvador Allende. These sequences are fraught with an inner tension though the film remains quiet and contemplative. The lead up to the insurrection and the events following are marked by silence, in keeping with the fear of the people.
Being a film about a military revolution without any scenes of revolution or a brave and forthright central character, it is fitting that the film should also have an ardently unconventional romance storyline. However, this is largely where the film falls down. In Mario’s tentative romance with his neighbour Nancy (Antonia Zegers), the film becomes somewhat kooky and quite silly. The idea that Mario can be active and can stand up for something seems entirely out of place with the rest of the film, though he actively helps Nancy in a variety of ways. These sequences also feature some awkward moments that undercut the film’s overall mood. An example is the scene in which Nancy suddenly begins crying, which swiftly leads Mario to burst into tears, a scene that feels misplaced and unconvincing. After all, Post Mortem is a serious film and although the romance sequences are presented in keeping with this tone, they don’t work in the way that they were intended.
The film has a lot of similar sequences that feel like artistic conceits that didn’t work. There are a few moments, which are supposed to be similar to the Nouvelle Vague concept of ‘dead time’, but become stunt-like directorial indulgences, not unlike the opening of Somewhere and a moment in Hunger. In Post Mortem, these are intended to have a slow and deadening pace usually accompanied by the dull and endless throb of some sort of engine beating a rhythm for a subservient future society. In these scenes, the point comes across long before the scene ends. It continues on and on, highlighting and re-highlighting the same point.
Post Mortem is a film with a lot to say about a society in fear of revolution and the control of the secret police. However, it’s constant wish to avoid cliché and to appear cerebral and unconventional makes it much less credible and immediately effective.