04/24/2012 02:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cinema As Historical Conscience: Post-Mortem Final Screenings In NYC Today (VIDEO)

I'm re-posting this review from NYFF#48 to earnestly remind fans of engagé cinema that today is their last chance to screen Post-Mortem, an essential, unflinching meditation on Chile's semi-recent history -- and by extension, its (and our own) ongoing internal reckoning.

I found great value in Tony Manero, Larrain's prior Pinochet-era film -- but where Tony Manero was an idiosyncratic look at human nature during a very mean time, a sate of siege, Post-Mortem, by virtue of taking place earlier, during the actual coup, is informed by a more focused moral high-mindedness in a universe where one is compelled to act: the time before the nothing is true, everything is prohibited (unless you can get away with it) world of Tony Manero.

For Post-Mortem, Larrain re-cast Tony Manero's leading man Alberto Castro, who looks like Roberto Benigni's undertaker brother -- and in Post-Mortem he plays Mario, an undertaker, or rather, the undertaker's autopsy typist, fictionalizing for posterity the details of thousands of slaughtered humans, supporters of popularly elected president Salvador Allende, exterminated in 1973 by a right wing military cabal led by A. Pinochet.

I asked director Pablo Larrain about the current dialogue in Chile, regarding their past reign of terror, and he pointed to present-day contradictions within the national psyche:

"You know when you talk to people who were in those days you get so many different opinions you know and it's always something so strange to try and build one whole idea of what happened; it's not possible to design something objective. This is not a documentary or something like that -- and when you get to talk to people everything is so different you really question yourself if people were in the same country."

All of which makes Post-Mortem's simple dramatization of culpability-through-passivity set in the front lines (the city morgue) during the secretive assassination of a president and the military slaughter of civilians, a very proper dose of filmed agitprop, and I mean this as a compliment. More specifically, despite my general inability to suspend disbelief during history films and biopics, the simple staging of heaps of newly dead surrounding Mario's colleague Sandra (Amparo Noguera), the last person with a conscience in the coroner's office -- screaming to her two colleagues and a young general, that what is happening is wrong and someone has to say something, is for me, an experience actually enhanced by the absence of suspension of disbelief; it's nothing short of the kind of dramatic staging of events in recent history that the biopic and history-pic genres could certainly use more of.

Wardrobe-wise you have to love her violent red shirt, cloaked by a blue worker's smock indicating her loyalty and soon to be shed blood, as seen against his cloaking in the white, assumed purity of a medical lab-coat, under which he wears the off-white of indecisiveness, of spoiled mayonnaise. Photographed beside him, she and all women appear dead: during his neighbor Nancy's (Antonia Zegers) first visit, she frames herself in his doorway as if trapped, her arm over her forehead in a Guernica-like contortion of Gothic, fatal woe, and when (after a dinner of fried eggs, white rice and a mutual cry) they attempt sex, the camera remains only on her neck and torso, boxing her, in a close-up which depicts violence, not Eros; the panting sounding disturbingly like suffocation.

The total brutality in the visual poetry of the fatal door frame pose and the seemingly boxed-in torso are given a coda when, after he brings food to her at the shed she is hiding out from the death squads in, he discovers that her boyfriend is with her, and in an act of rank jealousy, locks them in and assembles an unmovable blockage of lawn detritus - chairs, table, bicycle, etc., condemning them to death, through an act of volition which, piece by piece, also serves as a metaphor for the will and violence inherent in passivity, and the gradual -- and then sudden -- irreversibility of collective passivity over time.

This shed-locking scene also grimly mirrors an earlier scene when, as Mario drives Nancy home after she is fired from the cabaret where she was a dancer, the street is overtaken by a river of demonstrating Allende supporters including her boyfriend, who whisks her out of the car, declaring matter-of-factly "No one stays indoors these days" leaving the morgue typist in his car, unable to move, denied a woman's love and left behind by the sweep of history.

Post-Mortem has several indelibles, the description of which still won't soften one's experience which, to be certain, is heightened by the underlying moral breaches: an "autopsy" on the body of President Allende in the presence of the cabal of generals sends one reeling through time, pulled dizzyingly fast by the weight of history, as the counterweight of forgetfulness snaps free.

We are, through Post-Mortem, made witness to an individual's foregoing of all moral responsibility in the service of survival, and to the abject title of civil servant, which Mario says with a contemptuously desperate insistence when Sandra tells him that they must act, and when a desperate mother standing outside of the morgue asks if he knows anything.

And we know all is lost during one of the film's greatest, quiet scenes, in which the sound of slow rusty wheels evoke the painfully slow lurch of history, as he pulls his flatbed of dead towards his office and one of the bodies rolls onto the floor. He clumsily lifts the dead person back onto the pile of freshly killed human corpses, slumping over it in exhaustion, his lab coat cloaking the heap, but not entirely covering it.

While recently declassified documents reveal--or rather, confirm an unholy trinity comprised of Nixon's CIA, the ITT corporation and the Chilean military in the overthrow of popularly elected president Salvador Allende, the fine details about whether Allende was assassinated or committed suicide before being ousted are irrelevant -- and worse, distractions. The issue - for purposes that serve as morally instructive rather than mere America-bashing -- is quite simply, as always, complicity. Speaking of which, for a very short time as a teenager I actually bought into the domino theory about Latin America, but this only lasted a few months.

As I type this, a BBC announcer says "There, at the bottom of the mine, will remain Pinochet's ghost" -- a well-meaning statement, though perhaps this is not a matter for a foreign journalist to estimate. The recent mine rescue in Chile is an international success story to be certain, but it is also a scenario where workers' safety was clearly not a priority, and now the question of who owned and profited from the mine will be taken up by both proponents of domestic stewardship, as well as foreign companies.

I'm reminded of Che Guevara's observation on Chile circa 1952, in The Motorcycle Diaries, just a few 'graphs down from his observation that 40,000 supporters of then last-place presidential candidate Salvador Allende had been denied the right to vote:

"There are the necessary mineral resources to transform it into a powerful industrial country: iron, copper, coal, tin, gold, silver manganese and nitrates. The biggest effort Chile should make is to shake its uncomfortable Yankee friend from its back, a task that for the moment is at least Herculean, given the quantity of dollars the United States has invested and the ease with which it flexes its economic muscle whenever its economic interests appear threatened."

I watch the rescue operation on the news and see Salvador Allende's daughter, Isabel Allende, now a senator, visiting; I also see a man singing and playing a guitar near the President, and I imagine the Chilean folk singer and playwright Victor Jara at the site, serving as the elder statesman he might have become. Jara was imprisoned in a stadium, along with many others during the coup of '73; he performed for prisoners and was eventually tortured, then killed.
I look for some of his lyrics online, and an ad pops up, offering Victor Jara ringtones, and this gets me thinking of the copper that's used by the telecommunications industry which, in my mind leads again to thoughts about ITT's support of Pinochet, as Allende was seeking to nationalize resources.

My head begins to spin and I grimly realize that an ad may appear alongside this very posting, just as an ad for investing in nuclear energy appears in my posting on the BP oil spill in which I mention the perils of our president's and nation's untenably blasé attitude about nuclear energy. 'Eternal thanks to Akira Kurosawa for the third story in Dreams, depicting a nuclear reactor disaster and the energy company executive's horrible admission about his responsibility.

Online, I also find transcripts from this very telling conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, in which they agree on their public line, after having done just enough to incite a coup and a reign of terror, while maintaining plausible deniability.

What's most disconcerting is that these men are lying to themselves -- not about their complicity, but about their ostensible anti-communism. It's imperative to not get this twisted: They were not protecting the citizens of Chile from tyranny -- because they had no problems with a Stalin-wannabe like Pinochet. To wit, Nixon and Kissinger, on September 16, 1973 a few weeks after the bloodletting:

Nixon: Nothing new of any importance or is there?
Kissinger: Nothing of very great consequence. The Chilean thing is getting consolidated and of course the newspapers are bleeding because a pro-Communist government has been overthrown.
Nixon: Isn't that something. Isn't that something.
Kissinger: I mean instead of celebrating - in the Eisenhower period we would be heroes.
Nixon: Well we didn't - as you know - our hand doesn't show in this one though
Kissinger: We didn't do it. I mean we helped them [garbled] created the conditions as great as possible
Nixon: That's right and that is the way it is going to be played

Post-Mortem is screening today at Film Forum, you can find more info HERE

Extra-credit reading:

You can read my review of The Death of Pinochet HERE

You can read my review of NYFF#48 HERE