Set during the onset of the 1973 coup d'état in Chile, 'Post Mortem' is the strangely sardonic drama with a macabre sense of humor about a life disordered by love and war. That last bit is a common sentiment many can probably relate to on a personal level, even if the war aspect is only meant figuratively, and the plot is a familiar theme seen in a variety of movies. But here, Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín, who also wrote the screenplay, approaches the story with a matter-of-fact delicacy that maintains emotions and moral judgments at arm's length. It's a curious but skillfully executed tactic for a tale that grows from small pockets of optimism and lots of lively activity to an air of disenfranchisement and alienation.
Detached and indifferent yet absorbing and melancholic, the film is told in the distinctive style of Italian neorealism, where the emphasis is on ordinary life seen through a consciously aware documentary lens. This conscious decision-making can be seen in the highly-unusual choice of filming in the CinemaScope 2.66:1 aspect ratio. Carefully working with director of photography Sergio Armstrong, the ultra-wide frame creates a uniquely impersonal cinematic experience, awash in heavy gray overtones and almost completely drained of color. Several times, especially during mid-shots and medium close-ups, Larraín allows his actors to move around in and out of our visual space. Wide shots are from such a distance that the amount of empty space becomes unavoidable.
One brilliantly constructed sequence making splendid use of the aspect ratio is also the narrative's turning point and the moment when the life of our protagonist, the lowly and very lonely civil servant Mario Cornejo (Alfredo Castro), becomes more complicated. Living a very ordered, plain and routine existence, the assistant coroner is showering while the neighborhoods of the Santiago capital erupt into war, which happens off-camera. We hear the muffled noise of bullets, helicopters and explosions in the background, but the water hitting the top of his head drowns out the mayhem for the oblivious Mario. It's all done in close-ups with the actor bobbing around the frame. By the time, he takes notice and runs out the front door, we have a very wide shot of Mario staring across the street at his neighbor's house. It's a harrowingly biting but equally grim scene, showing the sudden lifeless silence of the neighborhood.
The neighbor's house belongs to Nancy Puelma (Antonia Zegers), a cabaret dancer recently fired for being underweight, which, possibly unintentionally, brings attention to some divergent cultural differences. Then again, it could be deliberate since Nancy is a miserably complex individual with deeply sorrowful, puppy-dog eyes, who suddenly breaks into tears in the middle of dinner. Nancy is the object of Mario's affection, which in this story means a depersonalized ideal of beauty. Just as their neighborly relationship grows more romantic and intimate, the military coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende interrupts, manifesting an unavoidable gulf between them. This fated gap is suggested by that wide shot of Mario standing across the street, facing a forsaken life of loneliness which he willfully ignores and chases after nonetheless.
The film commences as a kind of warped deadpan comedy with a strange quirkiness that brings more smiles than laughs. The second in a trilogy about the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, 'Post Mortem' unfolds in a fascinatingly organic manner with a focus on the most trivial moments of life. In the days immediately after the war, those same little events and actions suddenly carry more weight and importance. And for Mario, a broken heart, the shattering of a hopeful, optimistic future, is more demoralizing than the endless pile of corpses of innocent people littering the halls and stairs of the coroner's office. As the title hints at, this is a portrait of life after death, when war has subsided and love seems forever lost.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'Post Mortem' to Blu-ray inside a blue, eco-lite case. At startup, the Region Free, BD25 disc goes straight to the main menu with a full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
Presented in its original 2.66:1 aspect ratio, which is the CinemaScope ratio and highly unusual for a black comedy, 'Post Mortem' arrives to Blu-ray like a cold corpse on a slab. The intentionally bleak and melancholic photography of Sergio Armstrong is well rendered on this AVC-encoded transfer, but it doesn't offer much of a pretty picture to look at, which is precisely the point.
Contrast is heavily subdued and bland, creating a miserably gray overcast although whites remain clean. Colors are affected by this creative choice, as secondary hues seem dull and lifeless while primaries are noticeably wanting yet surprisingly accurate. Black levels, on the other hand, are rich and true with deep shadows and strong delineation in poorly-lit sequences. Fine object and textural details are good for a majority of the time, but there are several soft, blurry scenes the creep up. This could also be related to the photography and not a fault of the encode, along with the sickly pale complexions of the cast.
In the end, it may be faithful to the filmmakers' intentions, but it's not much of a looker on Blu-ray.
Much more impressive than the video is this great DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
Making excellent use of the surround speakers, the design allows for a variety of random sounds to spread throughout and bring the small Chilean neighborhoods to life. Dogs barks in the distance and echo all around; traffic noise and the chatter of crowds fill the room with endless activity; and during the second half of the movie, it all noticeably disappears, replaced by the bangs of bullets, soldiers marching, helicopter's flying overhead or the complete silence of empty streets. It's not a thrilling immersive experience, but with excellent directionality, it's striking nonetheless and works beautifully with the narrative.
The front soundstage delivers well-prioritized vocals amid a superbly balanced channel separation. The mid-range is detailed and extensive, generating a wide and spacious imaging. Low-frequency effects are generally lacking, given some of the action sequences, but overall, this lossless mix of a very dark dramedy is pleasantly satisfying.
The second in a trilogy about the 1973 coup d'état in Chile, 'Post Mortem' is the strangely sardonic drama with a macabre sense of humor. Through a distinctive 2.66:1 lens of neo-realism, director Pablo Larraín delivers a unique oddball film that follows a civil servant's routine, indifferent existence suddenly disrupted by love and war. The Blu-ray arrives with a picture quality that's a bit on the unimpressive side but likely faithful to the intentions of filmmakers. The audio, on the other hand, is excellent and satisfying. Supplements are definitely the weakest part, but overall, fans of dark offbeat films will want to give this a watch.