Sunday, September 4, 2011

VLAFF 2011: Post Mortem

It appears that the first two films I have seen at this year’s Vancouver Latin American Film Festival are both about neighbours. This, I assure you, was not planned, but for purposes of thematic continuity seems to have been a happy accident.

Following the stunning El hombre de al lado, my second film at VLAFF is Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s stunning, sobering Post Mortem. While the world prepares to recall the tenth anniversary of September 11th, there is for Chileans an equally emotional and personally felt event that happened on 9/11 that coursed through the country’s veins and informs its political character to this very day. For the uninitiated, September 11, 1973 was the day that the democratically elected Marxist Chilean president Salvador Allende addressed his nation in an eloquent, optimistic radio broadcast, just as his government was in the throes of a coup by notorious dictator Augusto Pinochet. Later that day, Allende committed suicide with an AK-47 rifle given to him by political ally and personal friend Fidel Castro. There are still reports to this day that he was actually assassinated and that the official cause of death was doctored, in both terms of the word, by the new government in charge.

Our entry point into Post Mortem is Mario (played by mercurial actor Alfredo Castro). He is 55 years old and lives in Santiago at the time of the coup. Mario identifies himself as a funcionada, or civil servant. What he really does is record medical findings on autopsies for the government in a morgue. He’s one of those unassuming, laconic types who wears a current haircut but for which he is about 20 years too old to pull it off. His loneliness is abated when he falls in quick, passionate love with his neighbour, the magnetic burlesque performer Nancy (Antonia Zegers) who lives across the street from him. Her family is a well-known supporter of Allende. One day, a loud commotion occurs at the house across the street, but Mario doesn’t hear it. When he finally realizes something has happened, he steps into an empty street and sees that Nancy’s family home has been decimated and everyone, including Nancy, is gone. Was the family attacked for supporting Allende?

Meanwhile, Mario’s work becomes involved in office politics of a different stripe. He arrives to find dozens of armed guards roaming the hospital, questioning the doctors not just on their professional integrity and competency but also on their political affiliation. Trucks show up, each time bringing more and more dead bodies freshly scraped off the pavement in the aftermath of the violent coup. Mario is tasked with piling the corpses and trucking them down the anonymous, dimly-lit hallways on their way to be autopsied. One of those bodies is Salvador Allende. It is not enough to simply accept this as life carrying on, as Mario’s colleague grows slowly insane from grief and when she asks what has happened in their country that has reduced them to this state, she is met with pitiless silence.

Post Mortem’s director acknowledges that although he wasn’t alive during this seminal period, he wanted to consider this dark time in the larger context of its history. Larraín explained in an interview that the film was inspired by a newspaper article on Mario Cornejo, who was one of the men present during Allende’s autopsy. Although little was known about this man, Larraín sought to create a speculative (and entirely fictional) tale surrounding that man: who was he? What must he have felt at that moment? What was his relation to the country’s coup? While Post Mortem does not provide a definitive, conclusive answer, it ventures to do so while providing a look at the 1973 coup through the eyes of an everyman who was there, but never noticed.

Larraín’s title explores not only the literal bloody aftermath of every political uprising, but also examines its effects on its survivors. Mario continues to diligently work even as his work place is filling up with corpses and the staff slowly but surely becomes hysterical. Eventually, the guards outnumber the actual forensics teams who work at the morgue. Is he so detached emotionally – he also has no family – that he can no longer relate to his country’s plight? Larraín chooses to film Mario in medium shots, and always in grim, dimly-lit settings. There is a stunning amount of silence in the film, as work carries on but there’s little conversation other than communicating what is functionally required. When Mario steps into the streets, they are empty and it’s quiet. Where is the revolution happening, and why can’t we see or hear it? Mario, and by extension the audience, can only engage or access it whenever the bodies arrive. It’s a disconcerting look at war, and is an icily cold and clinical as the exhumation of a corpse.

Post Mortem speaks to an earlier time when Hollywood was unafraid to make political, uncompromising films that did not have happy endings or were mere diversions. It captured top prizes at the Cartagena and Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival, and competed for the Golden Lion at last year’s prestigious Venice Film Festival. For those who think that film is or should purely be a vehicle of entertainment, do not forget that political film as an art form has the power to inform and to examine our past. In a curious post-script, Allende’s body was exhumed just this year and the autopsy results laid the assassination rumours to rest.

VLAFF will present a second screening of Post Mortem on the thirty-eighth anniversary of Allende’s death, on September 11, 2011, at 5 pm at Pacific Cinematheque.