“Nobody can escape the wheel of history,” a left-leaning (at least initially) physician says in Pablo Larraín’s less frantic, more devastating follow-up to Tony Manero (2008). That film, a black comedy about a disco-crazed sociopath, unfolds during late-’70s, Pinochet-ruled Chile. Post Mortem is set during the onset of the Pinochet-led (and U.S.-backed) coup against the nation’s socialist government in 1973—three years before the director and co-writer was born—and it’s filled not just with corpses but also the living dead.
With his skeletal frame and pallid complexion, his lank bob the color of dirty dishwater, Mario (Alfredo Castro, the lead in Tony Manero), a coroner’s assistant at a hospital, seems to be little more than a spectral voyeur. Obsessed with Nancy (Antonia Zegers, another Tony Manero vet), his neighbor across the street, he visits her at the two-bit cabaret where she works, the burlesque hall’s archaic atmosphere far removed from the student demonstration the two will later try to drive through. “My house is full of men talking about politics,” vain, apathetic Nancy, the daughter of a Communist-organizer father, explains to apolitical Mario when she shows up at his door; their weird night together includes a joint crying jag and a bout of awkward rutting—scenes of intentionally discomfiting duration.
The obliviousness and complete lack of regard shown by the civil servant, as Mario proudly refers to himself, for anything other than the delusion that the showgirl will agree to be his bride is relayed when he fails to see or hear the coup—planes flying overhead, gunshots, the bombing of Nancy’s house—while in the shower. He looks puzzledly at the burned-out cars on his drive to work, the streets of Santiago a queasy-making gray-and-blue hue that matches the sickly green light of the hospital. A steady stream of bloodied bodies is piled up everywhere in the building, though one lies on a dissecting table: that of President Salvador Allende, laid out next to ghastly medical instruments, including a gruesomely incongruous ladle. The pathetic functionary, tasked with recording the official autopsy of the leader whose head is half blown off, would seem now to be a player in world history—a short-lived stint, as Mario has difficulty operating the electric typewriter.
Often drolly, coolly morbid, Post Mortem also operates just as effectively in a more nakedly direct register. Mario’s colleague Sandra (Amparo Noguera, also from Tony Manero) breaks down at the sight of the endless cadavers at her feet and demands that the doctor in charge do something about it. Her crack-up, born of a wish to stanch the blood staining her nation, finds its malevolent opposite in Mario’s reaction to a perceived betrayal—in which the insignificant little man proves as barbarous as the regime he’s now living under.