The political becomes personal in Pablo Larrain’s deadpan dark comedy Post Mortem, which follows a sad-sack Santiago bureaucrat as he stumbles through 1973, the year Chile fell under military control. Alfredo Castro (who starred as the murderous Saturday Night Fever fan in Larrain’s 2008 film, Tony Manero) plays a morgue clerk who spends his days filing reports on the corpses that pass across the doctors’ autopsy tables—a job that becomes more demanding once the coup really starts to rage. Meanwhile, Castro develops a pathetic relationship with his neighbor (Antonia Zegers), an emaciated dancer who toys with Castro’s affections, manipulating her seemingly soft-hearted, expressionless neighbor into helping her survive when she fears her life is in danger. But it’s a dangerous game Zegers is playing, at a time when Chileans are disappearing without a trace every day.
Larrain crafts Post Mortem as a slow, quiet character study, narrowing in on Castro in his home and office while the world outside descends into madness. That deliberateness comes off a little like affectation at first—a common “art film” signifier—but once Chile’s weirdness begins to match Castro’s, the style makes more sense, if only for the way it accentuates the mordancy and tension of the situation. How does a man who barely reacts to the woman he supposedly loves handle it when he’s asked to help the army cover up atrocities? He just shrugs and does his job, such that by its last third, when the bodies are piling up, Post Mortem has become like a zombie movie from the zombie’s point of view.
Ultimately, though, what makes Post Mortem affecting and relevant is that its hero isn’t as inhuman as he sometimes seems. Early in the film, Larrain shows Chileans dealing with petty concerns—rude theater patrons, confusing Chinese-restaurant menus—yet as their daily existence becomes more life-and-death, people remain prone to jealousy, selfishness, and taking deep affront at the smallest inconveniences. Castro is no different. Larrain overdoes it at times with his endurance-testing shots and limited perspectives, but the approach pays off in scenes like the one where Castro takes an ordinary, boring shower, while offscreen, we hear the sound of civilization collapsing.