Judge Bill Gibron wishes there had been more politics and less passivity in this intriguing foreign film.
Dead on Arrival?
Complicated political situations often result in equally difficult works of art. Films like Z and Missing address unrest and violence in Greece and Chile, respectively, while A Serbian Film and The Life and Death of a Porno Gang make metaphor out of the human horror film known as Tito/Milosevic era Yugoslavia. Not every attempt at turning allusion into commentary works, but when it does, the results can be spellbinding. The foreign film Post Mortem definitely fails in that regard. It's good, but not great. In fact, if writer/director Pablo Larraín wanted to find the proper balance between melodrama and the mundane, using romance and the regressive state of South America circa the early '70s, he's succeeded. If he was hoping to make something a bit more moving, that electrifies us from within without working up a serious sweat outside, he's missed the mark. In fact, the movie feels more like a letdown than a full blown political allegory.
Mario (Alfredo Castro, Tony Manero) works in a morgue in Chile. He transcribes the facts of each autopsy. He is a quiet, lonely man who dreams of dating his neighbor Nancy (Antonia Zegers, The Life of Fish), who works as a dancer. She's recently been fired, however, since her skinny near-anorexic frame is determined "unsexy." One day, our hero finally works up the courage to woo her. Unfortunately, his goals collide with the overthrow of Salvador Allende's government by military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Soon, Nancy's agitator brother and father have disappeared. The next moment, she's gone as well. Heartbroken, Mario decides to find out what happened. Naturally, this collides with his employment, especially when the Pinochet regime asks that a very special postmortem be performed, confirming the "suicide" of a "very important person."
Almost from the very beginning, Post Mortem shows its hand. Mario is inert, not really caring that his job is becoming more and more "popular" as violence fills the streets of Chile. He does his job with methodical detachment, unable to care or even work up the courage to complain. His affections for Nancy are also the result of his lack of basic humanity. He is heavy handed and awkward, amplifying the already stark reality of his life during wartime. When Pinochet's people step in and demand that an autopsy reflect a certain party line, barely an eyebrow is raised. Everyone is so afraid of defiance, so eager to sit back and follow orders, that the stench of flowering fascism is overpowering. It's not hard to see why someone like Pinochet came to power (all help from a certain superpower aside) and why no one responded for decades.
But there is no investment in the tragedy outlined here, no real way to empathize or sympathize with Mario, Nancy, or their plight. Post Mortem doesn't do enough contextualizing. Instead, it sits by, passively, as important events play out. Sure, there is a sinister aura to the notion of journeymen doing their job as, outside, the faint sounds of death can just be heard. We also understand, through history and the news, that Chile was in total chaos at the time. The opening of the movie reflects this, somewhat. But like most ideas not fully realized, Post Mortem eventually loses us. We keep trying to pick up the puzzle pieces being laid out for us, but they never come together as a complete picture. Instead, we are left with loose ends, unrealized intentions, and no real sense of purpose. In his previous film, Larrain used a serial killer conceit to argue for the brutality in his homeland. Post Mortem's emphasis on the deceased renders most of its message DOA as well.
Additional problems arrive thanks to the baffling Blu-ray from Kino. Now, it's not the company's fault. All the tech specs offered are perfectly serviceable. But the weird thing comes from some of the decisions made both behind the lens and after the filming wrapped. Post Mortem was shot in 16mm, not necessarily conducive to a high definition ramp up. The image is just too grainy and indistinct to really drive home the format update. In this case, Larrain has made the equally odd decision to stretch and compress the image even further. The 2.72:1 transfer takes away the immediacy in the director's work, rendering what should have been a claustrophobic experience a bit too "arthouse" for its own good. The colors are nice and the contrasts decent, but the crazy combination of approach and appearance is surreal. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is significantly better. It is immersive, clear, and atmospheric. This is especially true when Mario is working in the morgue, the sounds of violence vaguely wafting in from the outside. Sadly, the only added content is a trailer and some stills.
With its deliberate pace and lack of legitimate "thrills," Post Mortem would appear to be a bust. If it is, however, it remains a very noble one. The setting and subtext are explosive, to say the least. How they are rendered almost ruins their power.
Guilty, but barely. Interesting, if a tad too slow and deliberate.
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