Monday, 26 September 2011

post mortem (w&d pablo larraín)

For some of us, and clearly from its undistinguished London screening, we are few, Post Mortem was one of the most eagerly anticipated film releases of the year. A film that warranted red carpets, gala screenings, celebrities telling you how much they loved it. Instead, Larraín's film was playing on the ICA's tiny second screen, in a grainy projection that did it no favours. Before the film started the audience were informed that there was a problem with the tape. They played five minutes of Silvio Rodriguez, which was at least appropriate, before fixing it. The whole thing was something of a verguenza, and one wonders how the film's marketing people, sitting on the work of one of the cinema's most exciting directors, have let this happen.

The pivotal scene in Post Mortem occurs two thirds of the way through the film. Its lead character, Mario Cornejo, (in some ways a prefiguration of Alfredo Castro's character in Tony Manero), is seconded into participating in the autopsy of Salvador Allende. This is the story of a little man caught in history's headlights. The scene itself is swathed in the blackest of humour, with Mario struggling to use an unfamiliar typewriter as his boss dictates his notes. In the film's credits, there's a thanks to Mario Cornejo himself. Larraín has taken this real, unknown man who found himself on the stage of history and fictionalised him, imagining how he got there and, more importantly, the impact his being there had on his already vulnerable psyche.

As a result the film neatly splits into two sections, pre-coup and post-coup. Mario is an apolitical figure. There's clearly turmoil in the streets, but he's more interested in his neighbour, a dancer in a seedy cabaret, who lives with her politically active family. Mario patrols the streets of Santiago in his red bubble car. It's a sullen city, pregnant with disaster, but Mario seems oblivious. Then the coup happens and the film shifts register. It embraces a kind of deadpan baroque, as bodies mount up at the morgue where Mario works, and he and his colleagues struggle to stay sane in the face of horror; not a slasher horror (though it's fascinating the way in which a scene such as the one where Mario drags a gurney stacked with bodies behind him feels like it could have come out of a horror film), but a real, historically documented horror.

As such, the filmmmaker is attempting to do something supremely ambitious: to convey to a modern day audience what those days were like. To recreate history. Not in a documentary fashion, but in a sensory fashion. We start to feel the sense of nihilism that arrived with the coup (and the aftermath of which Tony Manero explores in more depth). Whilst it's a bleak space, its also a strangely comic one; there are no rules, death is flat, matter-of-fact, on the edge of being farcical. Dead people are shot and they are neither more dead nor less so. Mario walks through this landscape like Buster Keaton, po-faced and desensitised. The ending, when it comes, is brutal and revelatory, savagely violent without even a hint of blood being spilt; a ghoulish work of performance art.

Chile remains a society where political divisions between left and right are heartfelt and integrated into the day-to-day. Larraín belongs to one of Chile's most political families: his uncle is part of the right-wing government which has been subject to violent recent student protests that lasted for months. To make a film about the most significant moment in its recent history is therefore a bold step in the first place. To do it in a way which is both oblique and horrifyingly direct is yet more of an achievement. As the immediate influence of the dictatorships recedes in Latin America, its artists begin the process of trying to make sense of the legacy they've inherited. The closing scene of Post Mortem summons up a society that is on the point of shutting itself up for the next thirty years. It's a devastating ending for a film which pulls off the trick of recounting an unlikely narrative about issues of enormous weight within its society whilst developing its own dry, idiosyncratic aesthetic.

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