Pablo Larraín, Post Mortem
Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero) was born in 1976, three years after the coup d’état that toppled democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende and ushered in the long, brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet, whose chokehold on the South American nation lasted until 1990. Although Larraín is currently shooting the second season of Prófugos, an action-drama series for HBO Latin America about cocaine cartels — “it’s like playing a with a big toy,” he avers — the Pinochet era has continued to fascinate him. The chaotic, thunderous birth moments of this dark and deeply corrupt period in Chile’s late-modern history provide the setting for the writer-director’s latest feature, Post Mortem, a comically dour love story–cum–allegory of political madness that debuted at the 2010 Venice Film Festival. Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro) is a laconic mortician’s assistant whose mannered obsession with aging cabaret dancer Nancy Puelma (Antonia Zegers, in a crypto-seductive role that recalls Isabella Rossellini’s in Blue Velvet) turns sour and irrational as the wheels of history disrupt the social order. Like the protagonist of Tony Manero, a disco-crazed sociopath who kills repeatedly in order to realize his dream of performing a Saturday Night Fever–inspired sequence on television, Mario is a stoic cipher. His morality is archaic —“I don’t sleep with women who sleep with other men,” he matter-of-factly informs his curiously smitten co-worker Sandra (Amparo Noguera) — and gradually becomes opaque as events overtake him.
History may have a straight face, but Larraín finds bits of mordant humor in all the absurdity that surrounds his characters. (Mario’s low-key confrontation with Nancy’s irritable manager at the Bim Bam Bum club ends, for instance, when he silently and gingerly overturns a giant plate-glass window.) With his co-writer Mateo Iribarren and close collaborator Castro (an accomplished theater director and television actor in Santiago who starred in Tony Manero and also appeared in Larraín’s debut, Fuga), Larraín has found a way to work simultaenously on an emotional and symbolic register, fusing them into somber melodrama. Thematically, too, Post Mortem is complex. Early on and throughout the Pinochet regime, the military junta “disappeared” thousands of undesirables and presumed political enemies whose bodies have never been recovered (the subject of Patricio Guzmán’s elegiac documentary Nostalgia for the Light). Post Mortem stages that history with a disquietingly clinical emphasis on the corporal: Nancy’s thin, aging body is the subject of cold scrutiny at the club where she dances; Mario witnesses autopsies and types up the results for a living; the army dumps truckloads of corpses at the hospital with macabre indifference. Even the interrogation of Allende’s corpse, attended by military observers, turns national trauma into ghoulish theater.
Filmmaker spoke with Larraín about history and memory, Pinochet’s legacy in Chile, and how unconventional framing can create mystery. Post Mortem opens today at Film Forum in New York.
Filmmaker: It often seems there is no memory in the U.S. Certain moments of national crisis, like the Civil War or 9/11, are enshrined in amber with a kind of nostalgic sanctimony, while everything else is conveniently forgotten even as it happens, whether the curtailing of civil rights or wars abroad. It seems different in Latin America, where memory is so often a theme of novels, poetry, film, art.
Larraín: I don’t see that we have a lot of respect for our past. In fact, our memory is very weak here. Maybe you get a lot of films from Latin America that deal with the past, but our reality is future, future, future, and I think that’s a huge problem. If we were really concerned about our past, we would be trying to make justice with what happened in Chile. People who tortured and killed others, the entire military machine, are all free. Most of these guys are walking the streets. I heard a week ago that a woman was at the supermarket, weighing a couple of avocados in a scale, and right next to her she spotted the guy who tortured her. They looked at each other and then he came over and said, “How are you?” She had been raped and tortured by this man. He kept talking to her about his life, his family, whatever – that is not taking care of your past. Pinochet died a couple of years ago absolutely free. He never got a serious judgment and he died with 25 million dollars in a Swiss bank. In Santiago and Valparaiso, we have beautiful European architecture everywhere and it’s all being destroyed by new buildings. So there isn’t even memory in the [structure of our] cities. There’s no respect from the law, either – you can build whatever you like. Nobody cares. Unfortunately, that’s the reality.
Filmmaker: Do you think it’s the responsibility of an artist like yourself to recover and restore those memories?
Larraín: Oh, I’m a little bit more selfish than that. I’m not trying to change or save anything. I’m just digging. I am making the last film in this trilogy that began with Tony Manero and Post Mortem, called NO. It’s the story of the referendum that we had here in 1988, where people had to decide to vote yes or no to keep Pinochet in power. And the three movies are all trying to explain our actual situation. When we think, Why is our country or society not like America’s?, there are a few keys that could help us understand that. What I’ve been trying to do is restage it all and be there again. Those keys open little doors that help you to see more.
Filmmaker: You filter all of that history through a single character, in this case Mario Cornejo, played by Alfredo Castro. Both Mario and Tony Manero are very odd, eccentric men – they’re hard to decipher. Their motivations are indeterminate.
Larraín: I understand it’s possible to see that both characters are weird and eccentric. I could also say it’s completely possible that we look at them in a weird way. I’m sure if I followed you for a week with a camera, I could make you a very odd character. It’s point of view. But I do think, as you do, that these characters are symbols. They are created to symbolize a lot of things – they are a result of society, and sometimes you need to create an icon to reach the place you want to reach. That icon can be strange and far from you, but these are still people who eat and go to the bathroom. I believe movies are made out of tone much more than story or dramatic plots. As a filmmaker, I try to create an atmosphere, a soul or tone. You are looking at situations [in my movies] that aren’t very usual, and that can make it feel odd, especially for international audiences. When you have a tone, then you have something to say.
Filmmaker: That tone is partially created in Post Mortem by the lack of music and length of shots.
Larraín: The one I’ve just shot has music and a lot of cuts. It’s much more regular, in that sense, but it still has an atmosphere.
Filmmaker: A lot of Mario’s eccentric behavior is connected to his desire for Nancy Puelma. But other traits of his personality are morally opaque. One moment, he’s helping his colleague save the life of a man who’s been shot by the military. In another, he smiles enigmatically when he hears the results of Allende’s autopsy.
Larraín: I like to create characters who are contradictory. Most of us are. This happened a lot in Chile in those days. People were in an unknown place. Everything was unique and strange – there was no rational reaction. I felt that the idea of Mario becoming sort of a new right-wing guy was interesting. That happened back then. When Pinochet came in power, he was supported by a lot of people, especially at the beginning. Then there’s this other aspect where, with most Hollywood films and culture, in terms of character design, we get used to heroes, people doing exceptional things and finding redemption at the end. That character structure is great in some movies but is far from reality. It’s a fake representation of our society – we are more covert, more hypocritical. People smile when they have to smile, are mad when they have to be mad. This system we live in is created for individualism and that’s it. I wanted to show a person who could smile to both sides and try to remain safe but also commit a crime of passion at the end.
Filmmaker: A crime which echoes the national legacy of burying bodies, evidence, and memory.
Larraín: Yes, that’s exactly what I was saying before: You bury them, but you bury them in your house! Because you don’t see [the bodies], you believe they don’t exist. We have a saying here in Chile: You leave the wood under the carpet. You’re stepping over it, but it’s still there. We have 3,000 bodies that are somewhere – in the river, the hills, the streets, people’s houses. They have been missing for almost 40 years. Nobody is looking for them. Have you seen Nostalgia for the Light?
Filmmaker: Yes. One of my favorite movies last year.
Larraín: When the women are looking for little bones [of their loved ones] in the desert, and then you see these huge telescope lenses in the hills, searching the galaxies, one woman says “Why don’t you use that huge telescope to help me find what I’m looking for?” It’s so beautiful, and a perfect synthesis of what’s going on here. Everyone’s looking everywhere, but not at what happened [in Chile’s past]. When [Mateo Iribarren and I] wrote the script for Post Mortem, [we constructed it as] a huge moral breakdown – a slow one. Morality gradually vanishes throughout the movie. Situations are routine at first: a man has a relationship with a kid, his co-worker wants to date him, and he’s infatuated with another woman. Then the coup comes, and everything begins to be destroyed. This destruction impacts everyone …
Filmmaker: Mario Cornejo was an actual person. What’s the background on him?
Larraín: Post Mortem began when I found the original autopsy report on Salvador Allende, which you can find on the Internet. It is signed by two very well-known doctors, along with this other guy. I said to myself, “Who the fuck is Mario Cornejo?” [Laughs] As we researched, I realized that this guy was there, working in the morgue – he was a regular man who died years later from alcoholism. He had a family and was very different from our Mario. I thought it would be interesting to look at a simple man who gets really close to big historical moments, and no one notices him. In the big moments of US history, you can probably find people who were there but nobody remembers them. But what they saw and felt at that moment is extremely interesting to me.
Filmmaker: One thing that becomes an object of scrutiny for you in the film, because it’s an important part of Mario’s world, is his typewriter. It’s a record-keeping device, so it literally carries historical weight.
Larraín: Yes, memory written. The only concrete historical file that we had was Allende’s autopsy – the only one. We have it because someone wrote it down. It’s fascinating as a document. You know, we shot the autopsy scene in the actual hospital and in the same room that Allende’s was performed in. For some reason, that hospital, which belonged to the military, was returned to the state. The building is in midtown and was going to be destroyed for another hospital. They decided not to touch it and the rooms were still there – the lights, the beds, the instruments – everything used in those days at the hospital. But that’s a place, not a record. The military destroyed almost all existing records.
Filmmaker: Do you see the humor in your work that others do?
Larraín: Yes, I work with that. I wouldn’t understand moviemaking without having absurd situations. It’s a little bit of a game that we create. International audiences laugh at different moments in Post Mortem, never in the same places. In Chile, nobody laughed at any point in the entire film. And if you read the reviews here, nobody considered it a black comedy, either. I think it does have dark elements, and I like to use them because otherwise it would be too annoying – this is not a genre film. Someone wrote that the film turns history into horror. I think it’s balanced with humor and melodrama also.
Filmmaker: Nancy weeps at Mario’s kitchen table at one point and then he breaks into heaving sobs as well. Somehow, the pantomime of empathy in that scene is hilarious. It made me laugh out loud.
Larraín: [Laughs] I agree! And when Mario finds that Nancy’s hiding underneath her house with another man, the guy [looks at him and] says, “Do you have something to eat?” A lot of people don’t laugh at that moment, but for me it’s a big joke. It was very hard to shoot because we were all laughing.
Filmmaker: You seem fascinated with the face of your leading actor and collaborator, Alfredo Castro.
Larraín: [Laughs] I think an actor is a body, and when you pick an actor for a character like this, the mystery he carries is so essential. Alfredo for me is a guy who, when he gets in front of the camera, means something without doing anything. He’s so intriguing, just by his presence. Some people think it’s because he doesn’t speak much, but I think the mystery is somewhere else. In both films, we made a movie in which you wouldn’t be able to know [what the main character’s thinking]. Why is he doing this and behaving that way? You need a character who’s mysterious – if he’s completely transparent, the audience will understand him right away and there’ll be nothing for them to look for. It’s already been designed by the creator. Sometimes I want to be in an active position as a viewer.
Filmmaker: You make choices with framing that are unusual, too. At the beginning of the film, when we first see Mario, his head almost disappears at the bottom of the frame. At other moments, the top of the frame cuts him off at the chin. That seems connected to the sense of mystery you are describing.
Larraín: Absolutely. It has so much otherness that you are not seeing – you have to create it as a viewer. It’s the same idea with Alfredo. He carries the mystery and we have to support that with the framing. What’s outside the frame can be more interesting than what’s inside. Sometimes it just feels right, too, and that’s probably good enough.