Joseph O'Brien 6 p.m., Nov. 26
Review: Post Mortem
Were it not for the San Diego Latino Film Festival, I might never have been given a proper introduction to Tony Manero.
No, not the disco-dancing Guido of Saturday Night Fever fame, but a John Travolta impersonator/serial killer who quietly wreaks havoc over an impoverished section of Santiago in 1978, four years into Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship.
No film that year or since has tickled my dark side quite like Tony Manero. Who among us has never wanted to use Travolta's white suit as toilet paper or physically introduce a projectionist's skull to a lamp housing for neglecting his or her duties?
For their follow-up feature, Post Mortem, director Pablo Larraín and star Alfredo Castro decided to rein in the untamed emotional pyrotechnics, relying instead on a backdrop of fascism to add just the right amount of violent intervention. The effects of the terrorism don't hit the screen until about an hour in, but it's hard to forget that Larraín's opening image places his audience underneath a tank plowing through a war-torn Chilean neighborhood.
Castro's character, Mario, still lives in the past -- the time is 1973, amidst the turbulence ignited under the final days of Salvador Allende's brutal reign that ended in the dictator's suicide.
Mario doesn't share Manero's appetite for murder, but he does maintain a direct connection to death. He works as a functionary whose job it is to transcribe autopsies. He is still an avid theatergoer, but instead of cinema, Mario frequents the local burlesque house, ostensibly to catch a socially-acceptable peek at his neighbor.
Our hero is a low-rent voyeur, Hitchcock's L.B. Jeffries with a first-floor view out his front window that offers a clear shot at Nancy's (Antonia Zegers) flat across the way.
Mario's status as Chile's #1 grey little nothing of an individual affords him an all-access pass to Nancy's place of employment. No one seems to care or even notice, for that matter, the little man quietly making his way from the audience to the dressing rooms.
Their first "date" finds the pair engulfed by a giant Chinese-dragon of a protest as they turn a corner and drive head-on into a march led by the Communist Youth of Chile. The couple's time together is cut short when another of Nancy's male companions appears and whisks her from out Mario's passenger seat.
Whatever Mario and Nancy have together can't exactly be described as romance. Their second encounter ends in sex, but not without an emotional meltdown that acts as both ice-breaker and foreplay.
Seated at Mario's dining room table, Nancy is suddenly overcome by tears. Not a one-hankie drizzle, mind you, but a shoulder-shaking, face-stretching cloudburst. Misery loves company, and soon Mario begins to wail. The only facet of the scene that remains unbroken is the length of the shot.
Delusional soul that he is, Mario believes that one night together is enough to cement a relationship. He begins telling co-workers that he and Nancy are man and wife. His delusions are further compounded when he finds the car he bartered with the club boss in exchange for keeping his aging "bride" employed as a stripper, crushed under the weight of tank-treads. Nancy is missing and his job as factotum turns up a devastating demotion: a stint in the Chilean Army documenting Allende's post mortem.
Post Mortem doesn't quite pluck a responsive chord like Tony Manero continues to do, but Larraín's growth as a visual storyteller is undeniable. The deliberate pace may bother some, but the director's masterful display of compositional tension over physical action helps to fortify me against the pending perils of a summer's worth of digitized detonations. The last shot in the film will push you back in the seat with more force than a dozen blasts of Dolby.
The San Diego Latino Film Festival screens Post Mortem tonight at 8:30 p.m. at UltraStar Hazard Center, with a repeat performance on Sunday, March 18 at 2:30 p.m.
Reader Rating: Four Stars
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