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Post Mortem -- Film Review

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A love affair between the two wretched losers plays out against the historical background of the 1973 military coup d'etat that put an end to the socialist reforms of Chilean president Salvador Allende, in the intriguing but understated "Post Mortem." As in his acclaimed "Tony Manero," young director Pablo Larrain finds an original key to revisit this bloody period, and the film requires some basic knowledge of Chilean history to decipher. In any case, the dramatic treatment is likely too low-key, and the characters too repugnant, to stray far from festival appreciation.

Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro, who played the obsessed John Travolta fan in "Tony Manero") is a shrunken, gray-haired functionary who works in a morgue, typing up the doctors' autopsy reports. As if in a dream, he develops an obsession with his alcoholic, anorexic neighbor Nancy (Antonia Zegers), recently fired from her job as a cabaret dancer because her emaciated body is unattractive. She seems too spaced out to judge his intentions, and their one tumble in bed means little to her.

Meanwhile, students and protesters are taking to the streets to defend the government of President Allende. Since all the big historical events take place off screen, some viewers may not realize that these are the days just before the government fell and Allende committed suicide as military closed in on the presidential palace (see Patricio Guzman's detailed documentaries on the subject).

Ignoring the protest marches in the streets, Mario grows increasingly attached to the apathetic Nancy. When her house, which is a meeting place for political radicals, is ransacked, he helps her hide in the cellar.

In the central scene, more powerful for being shot with great restraint, an army officer appears in the morgue and demands that the doctor, his assistant and the anonymous functionary/typist accompany him. In front of an audience of stiff military officers, they are forced to perform the autopsy on Allende's body and shattered skull. The emotional content of the scene is highly controlled and effective.

After this electrifying moment, the rest of the film seems anti-climactic. Corpses of ordinary citizens pile up in the morgue and autopsies are abbreviated to a minimum. Bodies pulled on trolleys have to be given numbers, since the names are missing. The conscience-stricken assistant (Amparo Noguera) loses control at the sight of this catastrophe. Mario, on the other hand, feels proud of being given a role in the drama, and allows his sympathies for the military to show through. And he goes on hiding Nancy.

Larrain's style is simple and direct, getting ideas across quickly with a look or gesture, rarely through dialogue. The earth-shaking events of history all take place off-screen, when neither of the protagonists is watching. Nancy's home is trashed while Mario is in the shower, seeing and hearing nothing of the ruckus that is going on just across the street. The unhappy, mismatched couple embody of their society's callousness and violence.

Castro is disquieting and ambiguous as the functionary, and not even his acts of tenderness towards his indifferent beloved can make him sympathetic. Zegers likewise brings an edgy hysteria to Nancy, whose blithe amorality keeps her very distant from the audience.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Fabula, Canana, Autentika
Cast: Alfredo Castro, Antonia Zegers, Jaime Vadell, Amparo Noguera, Marcelo Alonso, Marcial Tagle
Director: Pablo Larrain
Screenwriters: Pablo Larrain, Mateo Iribarren
Producer: Juan de Dios Larrain
Director of photography: Sergio Armstrong
Production designer: Polin Garbisu
Costumes: Muriel Parra
Editor: Andrea Chignoli
Sales Agent: Funny Balloons
98 minutes