‘Post Mortem’: History Out of Order in Chile 1979

Mario (Alfredo Castro) works at a morgue. Specifically, he takes notes for the coroner, sitting each day for hours at a manual typewriter, tap-tapping causes of death described by his boss, Dr. Castillo (Jaime Vadell). At home, Mario finds distraction by watching his neighbor, Nancy (Antonia Zeggers), from his window across the street. She’s a dancer, and she seems exotic.

As its title suggests, Post Mortem — which is open this week at Film Forum — concerns bodies and reports, the order that one might impose on the other. The film begins as Mario’s routine changes. He purchases a ticket for the cabaret where Nancy works, and makes his way backstage in hopes of finding her, past ladders and girls in feathers and the knife-thrower’s Wheel of Death, full of slits caused by knives thrown. As Mario watches from the hallway, he hears Nancy being fired: “You look like an ironing board,” her boss tells her, “No one wants to dance with you anymore.” Though she protests that she’s always weighed what she weighs now, he dismisses her, “Come back after you eat a couple of stews.”

Mario’s advent at Nancy’s dressing room door here is more comic than heroic: he’s unable to provide much in the way of emotional solace or material support, a pint underlined by their similar appearances: his face and frame, like hers, are gaunt and prematurely aged. But he does offer her a ride home, at which point you see their context: it’s 1973 in Santiago, Chile, and the streets are filled with angry protestors. If Mario and Nancy are unaware that a military coup against President Salvador Allende is underway, they take brief note of the crowds blocking their way. She urges him to keep driving (“Just step on the gas”), but the car is blocked long enough that a protestor pokes his head in the window and pronounces, “Nobody’s going home.”

It’s a grim beginning for Nancy and Mario’s relationship, which is, as you might anticipate, less a romance than a revelation. They do make their way “home,” such as it is, though when Nancy’s father holds a meeting to organize against the government, she arrives on Mario’s doorstep (“My house is full of men talking about politics, none of them want to have a drink with me”). For long minutes, Mario and Nancy sit at his table, plates of fried eggs and rice in front of them as they both begin to weep, neither looking at the other as their bodies are wracked by their sobs. The cut to the expected sex scene, is likewise jarring: the camera keeps close on her neck and exposed breast, her mouth open as you hear his gasps, a sound that doesn’t so much express pleasure or release as anguish and pain.

They’re in for more trouble, of course. Nancy’s house is bombed and her father and young brother disappear, while the morgue where Mario works is conscripted by the military and soon filled with bodies — literally. As much as Dr. Castillo and his assistant Sandra (Amparo Noguera) try to keep track of corporeal remains, they’re reluctant to abandon protocol, and instead to tag each body without names and with cursory “causes of death.” As the corpses take over all spaces, from hallways to stairways, the film keeps focused on Mario’s efforts to cope: loading bodies off vans and onto carts, wheeling them along endless dank hallways. The camera keeps back during these labors, following behind the rumbling cart, pausing to watch from a distance as Mario, so thin and weak, struggles to lift a corpse that’s fallen off the cart.

Despite his efforts, Mario can’t keep up. He’s unable to type fast enough during sessions where he and Dr. Castillo are now monitored by an odious line of soldiers. The doctor — who suggests early on that they’re all subject to the “wheel of history… where the dialectic contradiction occurs,” producing, at last, “a new man, virginal and vigorous, creative and powerful, sober, tall” — sighs and submits, naming causes of death (say, suicide) that can’t possibly be. Mario keeps his head down, even when he’s replaced at the new electric typewriter by a soldier who can actually type.

At home, though, where Mario has no reports to make, he’s less able to look away. He can’t maintain the fiction he tells himself, about Nancy’s needs and his own heroism. This as the film, again, keeps a distance. For long moments, you see him looking out his window, frying his eggs, or looking after Nancy’s injured dog, his face haggard and increasingly hard to read. Though he assures Nancy that he can provide for and protect her (“I have a position now”), Mario has no idea how to help. Looking at him, so fatigued and so sad, you might guess at how he comprehends the changed order in Santiago. But you don’t have to guess at the changed context: it’s impossible to manage all the bodies.

RATING 9 / 10