A pensive film that threatens to drop into despair at any time, this film refuses to let the viewer stay on the outside.
Lead actor Alfredo Castro reunites with writer/director Pablo Larrain after their award winning 2008 hit “Tony Manero” to make this stunning account of the final days of Salvador Allende’s presidency in 1973 Chile.
There have been other films made about this tragic time in Chile’s history but perhaps none as enthralling as this. The film refuses to let you be an outsider; drawing you into the scene in a way that is truly unique.
Castro plays Mario, a low-level public servant transcribing autopsy reports for a state undertaker. While the undertaker supervises and dictates the reports Mario dutifully writes, word for word. The film opens on the new Chile of the time, a country of blossoming civil rights and a newfound intellectualism that is exploring all aspects of freedom.
Across from Mario’s modest apartment is a cabaret that features a burlesque show that embodies the wildest aspects of freedom of speech. In a microcosm of the country’s turbulent change, a man buying tickets complains of the perverts who have found a home in the burlesque.
Outside on the walls of the barrios and in the streets are the graffiti and noise of unrest. Messages for the right and left and bloody demonstrators shouting to make their voices heard over the din.
Mario works with the woman who performs the autopsies. She offers to sleep with him but he rejects her, needing someone who will sleep with only one man, although he knows he is unlikely to have a woman of his own. He can barely cope with his own life, let alone another.
Mario becomes obsessed with the aging star of the burlesque who, like the regime, is being replaced. The manager wants money, and young and beautiful gets him what he wants. Political forces want the socialist Allende out and they, too, will get what they want.
As the society around them crumbles, Mario makes the dancer the woman of his dreams, the woman who will be faithful to him when all else is false. He imbues in her the virtue and truth that is gone in the world around him.
As the violence escalates outside the morgue Mario’s co-workers are called to perform ever more autopsies under increasingly disturbing circumstances. The autopsies are for Allende supporters, real and imagined.
They are the victims of the new Pinochet regime, the newfound enemies of the state that spoke out in the first days of the military takeover. Among the dead are also delivered the barely living, a class of people whose time on earth is drawing to a close.
As the freedom of the failed state falls victim to the increasing pressures of the outside world and to the needs of the entrenched Chilean elite, Mario sees his own dreams of a pure and lasting love fail.
The film asks if a country lives, and dies, in the same way a person lives and dies. It contrasts the life and death of dreams with human life and death. The scenes move from the raucous life of the bars to the violence and chaos of the streets eventually to the stillness of the morgue when the staff is requested to make one very special autopsy.
As they attempt to stem the damage of the conflict, they see their efforts fail, one by one.
Seeing all this through Mario’s eyes, the viewer is drawn into his life. He is attached to the burlesque star and unwittingly becomes involved with the Popular Front through her boyfriend. As he pursues her through the violence and bloodshed he is no longer allowed the luxury of examining death as a scientist.
He is forced to partake in the politics and social upheaval of his country on a personal level. As he takes this journey we are there with him. In the end there is nothing he can do to stem the damage, nor can he go back to his former state of mind.
What appears to be an accurate recounting of the feelings of the time, this film is a cautionary tale. Just as Mario is unable to escape the woes of his nation so are we all responsible for our country. While superficially a story of the end of hope, in the end this remarkable film is an inspiration for us all to take part.
It is no more possible to close a door on our nation that it is to close a door on our feelings. In the incredible closing scenes of the picture Mario builds a figurative wall of cast off furniture.
As the wreckage of the city builds, the weight of the tragedy around him becomes more and more pronounced. As the sounds from within are smothered, the noise of the sins of the world become more pronounced. We can only hope to learn from history.
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Directed and Written by: Pablo Larraín
Starring: Alfredo Castro
2010 New York Film Festival, screened September 27, 2010
MPAA: Not Rated
Runtime: 98 minutes
Country: Chile / Germany / Mexico