Most people who have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art have probably seen “Ugolino and his Sons,” the gigantic statue by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux that stands near the entrance of the Petrie Court Café. While there are few thing more pleasant than hanging around the Carol and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Garden on a Spring day, and looking through the towering plate glass windows out over Central Park, there are few stories in western literature more horrifying than the history of Ugolino della Gherardesca and his executioner the Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. In 1284, Ugolino, the “podesta” (dictator) of the city of Pisa, lost a decisive naval engagement with the rival city of Genoa at the Battle of Meloria. Although he was captured, the Genoese sent Ugolino back to Pisa, where he would secretly act as their puppet ruler. Four years later in 1288, during a severe famine, Ruggieri, who hated the podesta for killing his nephew, led an uprising that trapped Ugolino and his allies in the town hall, where they eventually surrendered, and were imprisoned in “The Muda,” now known as “the tower of hunger.”
What happened next is best described by Dante Alighieri in The Inferno.
Thou hast to know I was Count Ugolino,
And this one was Ruggieri the Archbishop;
Now I will tell thee why I am such a neighbor.
That, by effect of his malicious thoughts,
Trusting in him I was made prisoner,
And after put to death, I need not say;
But ne’ertheless what thou canst not have heard,
That is to say, how cruel was my death,
Hear shalt thou, and shalt know if he has wronged me.
A narrow perforation in the mew,
Which bears because of me the title of Famine,
And in which others still must be locked up,
Had shown me through its opening many moons
Already, when I dreamed the evil dream
Which of the future rent for me the veil.
This one appeared to me as lord and master,
Hunting the wolf and whelps upon the mountain
For which the Pisans cannot Lucca see.
With sleuth-hounds gaunt, and eager, and well trained,
Gualandi with Sismondi and Lanfianchi
He had sent out before him to the front.
After brief course seemed unto me forespent
The father and the sons, and with sharp tushes
It seemed to me I saw their flanks ripped open.
When I before the morrow was awake,
Moaning amid their sleep I heard my sons
Who with me were, and asking after bread.
Cruel indeed art thou, if yet thou grieve not,
Thinking of what my heart foreboded me,
And weep’st thou not, what art thou wont to weep at?
They were awake now, and the hour drew nigh
At which our food used to be brought to us,
And through his dream was each one apprehensive;
And I heard locking up the under door
Of the horrible tower; whereat without a word
I gazed into the faces of my sons.
I wept not, I within so turned to stone;
They wept; and darling little Anselm mine
Said: ‘Thou dost gaze so, father, what doth ail thee?’
Still not a tear I shed, nor answer made
All of that day, nor yet the night thereafter,
Until another sun rose on the world.
As now a little glimmer made its way
Into the dolorous prison, and I saw
Upon four faces my own very aspect,
Both of my hands in agony I bit;
And, thinking that I did it from desire
Of eating, on a sudden they uprose,
And said they: ‘Father, much less pain ’twill give us
If thou do eat of us; thyself didst clothe us
With this poor flesh, and do thou strip it off.’
I calmed me then, not to make them more sad.
That day we all were silent, and the next.
Ah! obdurate earth, wherefore didst thou not open?
When we had come unto the fourth day, Gaddo
Threw himself down outstretched before my feet,
Saying, ‘My father, why dost thou not help me?’
And there he died; and, as thou seest me,
I saw the three fall, one by one, between
The fifth day and the sixth; whence I betook me,
Already blind, to groping over each,
And three days called them after they were dead;
Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.”
I sometimes dream about being a Medieval Italian, of going back to Frederick II’s court at Palermo, of climbing Mount Ventoux with Petrarch, or joining a Ghibelline mob and fighting it out in the streets of Florence against the Guelphs in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor. Italy in the Thirteenth Century was a violent, treacherous place, but people were larger than life, romantic, fully developed individuals in a way no American in 2017 can possibly imagine. Whenever that dangerous mood strikes me, I always go back to The Inferno, and realize that it’s largely an invention of the Nineteenth Century, of Jacob Burkhardt, Nietzsche and the German Romantics. For a Thirteenth Century Italian, life on earth was a veil of sorrows, a brief test to determine where God would send us for the rest of eternity. The sinners in Dante’s cantos are not grand heroic individuals. They’re shades, dim reflections of what they were before they died without grace, flickering light bulbs in a dimly lit basement smelling of mold and cobwebs, half-alive bodies thrown on top of a pile of cadavers longing for the cold embrace of death. Even the sinners of the upper circles of hell, Francesca di Rimini or Farinata degli Uberti,a man who “seemed to hold all hell in contempt,” once noble souls being punished because of too most lust or too much love of country are fractured personalities who see dimly into the future and dimly into the past, who see the present, not at all, and who wait for the inevitable day when their minds are snuffed out forever.
“We see, like those who have imperfect sight,
The things,” he said, “that distant are from us;
So much still shines on us the Sovereign Ruler.
When they draw near, or are, is wholly vain
Our intellect, and if none brings it to us,
Not anything know we of your human state.
Hence thou canst understand, that wholly dead
Will be our knowledge from the moment when
The portal of the future shall be closed.”
In the 2010 Chilean film Post Mortem, Nancy Puelma, who’s played by Antonia Zegers, the wife of director Pablo Larraín, is a shade, not in Dante’s Inferno, but in the hell on earth created by Margaret Thatcher’s pet fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet. A woman somewhere in her thirties or forties, she has lost her job as an exotic dancer at the Bim Bam Bum cabaret, not because she’s too old, but because she’s too thin. Puelma, like Ugolino della Gherardesca, is a hunger artist, a soul wasting away into oblivion even as her flesh is consumed by her own inability to eat. On the eve of Pinochet’s coup on September 11, 1973, Nancy Puelma no longer wants to inhabit her own body, but to disappear into the ether of her emotions, which, by the time the film opens, have long since degenerated into irritable, nervous tics. She hates cats. They stink. She hates fat people. They have no self-control. She can’t eat rice. It’s “too rich.” An indifferent supporter of Chile’s socialist President Salvador Allende, she has a communist father and Victor, her militant leftist boyfriend played by Marcelo Alonso, a tall, dark-haired hippie from central casting, but she has no more stomach for revolution. Nancy, like Chile, is waiting for the inevitable ax to fall, the long awaited pro-American coup that everybody knows is coming, but nobody can quite figure out how to stop. Nancy Puelma is such a beaten down soul that what she fears isn’t hell, but purgatory. Purgatory, after all, means struggle. Hell is a kind of surrender.
When the ax falls for Nancy Puelma it’s not Pinochet or Henry Kissinger or the Chilean Army. It’s Mario Cornejo, her gaunt, gray haired, creepy little neighbor played by Tony Manero’s Alfredo Castro. Cornejo, a clerk typist at the city morgue, where he writes up reports on autopsies conduced by his boss Dr. Castillo, a militant leftist who immediately collaborates with the new regime after the coup, and his assistant Sandra, who wields the knife, is almost as gaunt and wasted as Nancy Puelma. Somewhere in his forties or fifties, and almost certainly a virgin, Mario Cornejo goes to work every morning in his boxy little Fiat, types up his reports – or tries since he can’t really type – and comes home every evening eat a grim little repast of one fried egg and a cup of white rice. If Nancy is an indifferent leftist, then Mario has no politics at all. He’s the kind of incomplete little soul who decided not to rebel against his parents when they told him “never to talk about politics or religion,” or against anything else for that matter. Mario is more automaton than human, more shade than body, more of a collection of habits than a fully formed human being. He’s also hopelessly in love with Nancy Puelma.
Post Mortem, like Dante, is not for the broad masses of the American public. Pablo Larraín, who’s stylistically indebted to the Dardenne Brothers at their most irritating, ha made a film that will bore the hell out of ninety nine percent of the filming going audience. That’s probably why it only has eight reviews on IMDB. Larraín makes no concessions to the audience. If you’re not familiar with the history of Pinochet’s coup, it will probably just confuse you, and will probably still confuse you if you are. Superficially a linear narrative, Post Mortem often jumps forward or back in time, then back into the present without much notice, or even reason to notice. Filmed in an unusually wide format, Larraín will occasionally cut off heads or feet, or drop you into a sex scene filmed from behind without letting us know who’s fucking who. There are long, boring passages of characters performing perfectly mundane tasks with no explanations about why they’re even there. If you don’t know the story from The Inferno – or if you haven’t read the Americanized version, Poe’s Cask of Amontillado – the ending will leave you completely lost at sea, and if you weren’t paying close attention earlier in the film during a seemingly routine autopsy you won’t even be able to guess what happened to her. Post Mortem is an uncompromising “art film,” and if Dark Knight or Rogue One are your thing, it’s probably not for you.
It’s also a masterpiece. Pablo Larraín, like the Dardenne Brothers, will bore the hell out of you for long stretches of the film’s running time, but when the critical moments come, oh boy do they come. Larraín, like the Dardenne Brothers, is the master of the “oh what the fuck, where did that come from, why the hell did you do that?” moments. The heroine of the Dardennes Brother’s great film Rosetta, snitches on a coworker and gets him fired, even contemplates letting him die, for seemingly no other reason than that he wants to be her friend. Tony Manero bashes in a theater owner’s brains just to steal a copy of Saturday Night Fever that he could have just as easily picked up and walked out of the theater with without anybody even noticing. Larraín is the master of the double tap narrative twist. Tony Manero watches an old woman being mugged, then walks her home, only to murder her and steal her TV, but not before feeding her cat.
We realize pretty early in Post Mortem that Nancy Puelma somehow dies of hunger. “Female,” the autopsy report says, “weight, 41 Kilograms” about 90 pounds. But the film telegraphs its inevitable outcome in such a confusing, haphazard, murky way that we forget it about it almost as soon as it passes. Perhaps it was a mistake. Perhaps we imagined it. Perhaps it was another Nancy. We quickly return to Mario’s “courting,” if “courting” is the right word, of his next store neighbor, a once glamorous exotic dancer who only a few years ago wouldn’t have given him the time of day, but now, depressed, anorexic, unemployed, waiting for the inevitable coup, goes on a date with the creepy little man if only because she’s too bored to do anything else. Their date, and Tony’s marriage proposal, are cringe worthy, mostly because they’re so realistic, at least for me. I’m in my 50s, about the same age as Mario is in Post Mortem, and I’ve finally learned to tell the difference between a woman who likes me and a woman who barely notices me. Mario Cornejo, on the other hand, reminds me of myself when I was twenty five, when I was the kind of man many women avoid even saying hello to because the understand that one “hello” can lead to an obsession. If Post Mortem has a Utopian movement it’s the way a fifty year old man can get a teenage crush on an unattainable woman. If Nancy Puelma ends up, not in purgatory, but in hell, it’s because she got careless, and accidentally ignites a passionate fixation that will eventually lead to her getting buried alive and, like Ugolino, dying of the hunger she thought she wanted.
Port Mortem has such a minimalist style that when Pinochet launches his coup, we barely notice it. Mario is in the shower. Some helicopters buzz overhead. He hears a truck full of soldiers in the street below. Did something happen? After he tries himself off, he walks across the street to the apartment where Nancy, her brother and her father live. It’s deserted. The place is also a smoking wreck. Pinochet’s death squads, it seems, have carted off the whole family in the time it took for Mario Cornejo to wash his hair and wrap himself in a towel. The only thing left is Nancy’s badly wounded little dog, who Mario scoops up, puts in a bag, and takes with him to his job at the morgue to treat his wounds. Needless to say, a morgue on September 12, 1973 in Santiago Chile was a busy place, and Mario, who’s vaguely aware that the coup has taken place – he has every reason to believe the death squads carted off his girlfriend – is still shocked, not only by the way it’s been occupied by the Chilean Army, but how its full of full of piles upon piles of corpses, so many dead bodies that even his coworker Sandra, who’s been slicing and dicing cadavers for decades, can barely keep herself from throwing up. Mario is too zombified to notice, but we notice that his boss Dr. Castillo, who was a belligerent, loud mouthed leftist before the coup – he’d lead his subordinates in chants of “Ho. Ho. Ho Chi Minh the NLF is going to win – is all too eager to cooperate with the authorities to save his own skin. These are my trusted people, he tells Captain Montez, the Chilean army goon now in charge of the morgue, before he sends Sandra back to her job dissecting bodies, and gives Mario – who was never a very good clerk typist – extra work carting bodies from the never ending stream of trucks unloading them out front, to be bagged, tagged, and given a fictional natural cause of death inside. Mario’s role in the coup becomes, in effect, is to become nothing more than a bored warehouse worker, unloading pallets of goods from the deliver trucks and stacking them on the floor to be sorted into their proper places. Post Mortem is in fact such a pitch black comedy that when we, and Mario, realize that some of the bodies he’s carting into the morgue are still alive, we can’t help but think of that iconic scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail where a man drags a wagon through a filthy medieval city during a plague shouting “bring out your dead.”
Post Mortem’s centerpiece, the “post mortem” of the title, the infamous autopsy on Salvador where the Chilean army coerced the medical examiner, Dr. Castro, and his two assistants, Sandra and Mario, into falsifying a report that it was a suicide, not a murder, is as harrowing for us as it is for Sandra and Dr. Castro. For Mario, on the other hand, it’s merely a distraction. Why does he have to go and participate in a historical event when he really wants to look for the woman he refers to as first his “girlfriend” and then his “wife,” the same woman who barely knows he’s alive and who we think probably ended up trapped in that makeshift detention camp the Chilean Army build in Santiago’s soccer stadium along with every other leftist in Chile? Nevertheless, after the autopsy is over, he finally gets to go home, and he goes back to Nancy’s apartment, for a few brief minutes we’re deliriously happy when he finds her in hiding, hole up in a basement closet, in mourning for her brother and father, but still very much alive. Perhaps, we think, Post Mortem will have a happy ending after all, that Mario will hide Nancy – who as an unemployed sex worker probably doesn’t have a very extensive paper trail – until the coup blows over. Maybe in 2010, we think, they’re a happy couple looking back at the catastrophe of 1973, thankful to have survived. We quickly notice, however, that something is very wrong. Mario might “love” Nancy but he doesn’t seem very good at hiding her, or even willing to help her at all. She asks for a radio. He brings her one that runs only on AC power. No longer anorexic, she asked him to bring her food. He fries up an egg and brings the whole frying pan out to her hiding place. When she notices his carelessness, she suggests that he put a piece of furniture in front of the door just in case the army stops by to have a second look. He complies with her request, but that suggestion, we eventually realize, is her doom. Mario might not have an original idea in his brain, but his subconscious is infinitely malleable.
The next time Mario returns he’s shocked to find not only Nancy but her lover Victor. The look in his eyes remind us of a fourteen year old after he caught his high school sweetheart necking with the star quarterback, but they don’t see it. They trust him. They ask him for food. We notice, to our disappointment, that he still has not brought her the battery powered radio, but still hope that the couple survive the coup. Mario goes across the street, fries another egg, and brings it out to their basement closet, soon to be tomb, a sparse meal for a grown man and woman, but still better than nothing. Then Nancy seals her fate. She asks for cigarettes. Mario looks at Victor, then Nancy, then Victor, perhaps in the same way Archbishop Ruggieri looked at Ugolino all those centuries ago in Pisa. They’ve betrayed him. Nancy, the woman he thinks he loves is, like Salvador Allende in the eyes of a Chilean fascist, a traitor. He agrees to get the cigarettes. They thank him. He closes the door and puts the cabinet back in front. Then he puts a chair on top of the cabinet. Better safe then sorry, we think. But then he adds a table, and another chair, another table, another chair, two more cabinets, a dresser, and finally a bike. To our horror, we see Nancy and Victor pushing on the door from the inside, trying, in vain, to move the ever expanding pile of junk out of the way before it’s too late, but we realize it’s hopeless. The banging stops. Mario doesn’t. Somehow he manages to find more cabinets, more dressers, more tables and more chairs. Eventually, like in a Dardenne Brothers film, the tape just breaks, and the movie ends. Mario keeps going. He’s still piling furniture in front of that door when the credits role and we can almost imagine it he’s still doing it today. We realize how Nancy died of hunger. Female, weight 41 kilograms, death, protein deprivation and extreme dehydration. We think about what it must have been like for Nancy and Victor during that seven or eight it took for them to die. At least Pinochet’s goons just shot people in the back of the head. The coup, we realize, was only the tip of the iceberg.