Where did the American Independent cinema of the '70s go, exactly? Did it fizzle and die, or did George Lucas scare it away with his mammoth sci-fi extravaganza? No one knows for sure, but there's something suspicious about the films of Chilean director Pablo Larrain. "Tony Manero," his debut feature, looked and felt like one of those movies, with a more brutal story. In fact, the main character even kind of looked like a young Al Pacino circa "Panic at Needle Park" or "Dog Day Afternoon." The story was political, focusing on Chile during the Pinochet regime, but the director was smart enough to let it play in the background while the main character did his own thing, that being a disco John Travolta impression. No preachy dialogue, no condescending messages. It wasn't a perfect film, but it was a new, skilled director slamming his arms on the table and ordering everyone to take notice. Unfortunately, the film was moderately embraced by critics and mostly wallowed in relative obscurity. A mere 2 years later, the director has decided to attack again with "Post Mortem," a refined and more understated piece, with the same style and code of ethics of his former film.
Returning from "Tony" is Alfredo Castro, the Chilean Al Pacino look-alike, though this time he has no interest in "Saturday Night Fever" nor in random acts of murder. Instead, Castro plays Mario, a guileless man that works in a morgue as a transcriber. Smitten by his neighbor Nancy, a burlesque dancer/revolutionary, he gives her a ride home and soon finds himself caught in a political demonstration lead by the Communist Youth of Chile. An amusing visual and also foreshadowing what's to come, a man in the parade notices Nancy and encourages her to join up. Mario makes his way through the crowd, quietly frustrated that his romantic plans have been thwarted. In a surprise later on, she visits him while he's eating dinner, tired of the political talks taking place at her house. Cut to rowdy sex, and following that is a long date that probably should've occurred first. It's a precious date, with Mario proposing they get married in an awkward yet sincere way. She blows it off as a joke, and it's at this point that every party involved- both characters and audience - assumes the rest of the flick will be a little deranged love story. They're not entirely wrong, but just as the next day hits, Mario finds Nancy's house empty and destroyed, and discovers the hospital taken over by the military. Relieved of his transcribing, he must tag and label dead bodies, wheeling stacks of them through the long, somber hallways of the morgue.
Characters often act in an unpredictable manner, which is thankfully believable within the context of the film but also renders any assumptions on where the narrative will go impossible. Castro's performance is the most interesting, naive like a child and emotionally impulsive (which leads to a magnificent finale), but also wholly compassionate, something that was absent from his "Tony Manero" character. While searching the destroyed neighboring home, he finds the wounded family dog and takes it along with him to the hospital, fixing its wounds and caring for it while he searches for its owner. This could've easily been either too cute or used incompetently as a sentimental narrative device, but Larrain carefully restrains the sequence. By not being wholly manipulative, it doesn't come off as superficially touching, but shows the caring side of Mario and his ability to help without thinking twice. His child-like behavior is admirable, only noticeable in subtle instances, such as him referring to Nancy as his "girlfriend" in front of her boss. It's little tiny moments like these that feature the character's slight disorder, adding depth to a muted appearance.
If "Tony Manero" seemed to avoid the politics of the circumstance, "Post Mortem" can't, constantly throwing its characters into the middle of Communist meetings or military junta. It's thankfully not overbearing, focusing on the people that find themselves caught in the middle of the mess and painting both sides of the coin negatively. Larrain's opts to observe the situation and let it speak for itself, from the military take over of the hospitals to the boarded up shops that line the town. It's a bleak life, one that's inescapable no matter where you go, and it breaks each character down one by one. Even Mario, who eventually finds his woman and hides her, loses himself when he finds her stowed away with a communist boyfriend from the beginning demonstration.
Thankfully, the overall depressing tone is offset by its incredibly strange sense of humor, which focuses on awkward visual moments and dialogue. Sometimes it's a shot held too long: Nancy cries during dinner, and Mario joins her, spitting and bawling, for seemingly no reason. Other times, it's the bizarre decisions characters make, and the degree of how serious they take them: Mario barters with Nancy's employer, exchanging his dinky car so she can keep her job. These instances bring a bit of joy to a story that could've been dreary straight-through, and it's nice to see a director not taking his work terribly seriously. That said, these moments don't come as often as they should, and once the state of war is declared, they're even more sparse and it makes the remaining time more wearisome.
It's not a forgettable movie by any means, but there's also really not much to reflect on post-viewing. Sure, there's the given things, such as the acting and the cinematography and so forth, and those wanting to learn more about the political history of Chile due to the subject matter goes without saying, but nothing else in the film warrants an after-thought. There's only appreciation of the product: how well it was made, how the story was handled, etc. But similar to the escapist films it stands apart from, there are only general, simplistic impressions afterwards, such as what a terrible time it was for the country or how Nancy took advantage of Mario's kindness and love. For all its subtleties and intelligence, the ideas don't run as deep as they should.
Pablo Larrain is certainly carving out an interesting resume, with two films that are stylistically harking back to the lauded but unfortunately lost cinema of the 70s, and a third film on the way to close the "trilogy." He's got his chops, and if he can keep up the skill while honing in on the unique style of humor he imbues into his films, plus have more of a conversation with the audience, he'll be set to have a truly great film. "Post Mortem" is at times genuinely unsettling and seems like a lost film from those times, but the director's more substantial work seems to lie ahead. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the New York Film Festival in 2010.