The writer-director Pablo Larrain continues to worry away at the toxic legacy of the Pinochet years in Chile. Though its opening shot (travelling along with the underbelly of a tank crushing everything in its path) might suggest otherwise, Post Mortem initially shapes up as a far less abrasive experience than the filmmaker's international breakthrough Tony Manero, a film of abrupt transgressions that caught as many eyes as it turned stomachs. The actor Alfredo Castro - who cut such a brutish, obnoxious figure as the Travolta wannabe in the earlier work - is here to be found in gentler, passive mode: his Mario is a lonely middle-aged mortician's assistant genuinely at a loss when the washed-up dancer he's been eyeing is taken away from him by a young, thrusting protestor in the midst of one street protest - where his predecessor would doubtless have found out where this love rival lives, and gone round to stove his head in.
Part of the film establishes a romance, albeit of the morbidly weird variety. Mario eventually comes to woo this woman, Nancy (Antonia Zegers), more out of a shared sense of failure and sadness than through any great display of passion on either side; having kickstarted his heart, he then tries, and fails, to revive her career. Back at the day job, meanwhile, the corpses begin to pile up, each with their own story to tell about the horror of the regime: malnutrition, suicides, those beaten to death, whether by their own spouses or by Pinochet's thugs. (You can well imagine the protagonist of Tony Manero contributing only further to the workload.) It remains up for debate whether Mario's interest in these bodies is purely professional, or whether - as his habitual curtain-shuffling hints - he's just a voyeur, standing by (as so many did) as the bodycount attached to the coup and its aftermath ramp up; his disengagement from the political realities of Chile at that moment can be spied from the way he stumbles into an opposition meeting and - after a couple of minutes' silent awkwardness - retreats to the beige neutrality of his own house. (Mario, we will see, is a lover, not a fighter, and not even very much of that.)
Later, Mario will even be replaced in his own workplace, standing impassively by as an officer with a greater knowledge of the electric typewriter used to knock out autopsy reports is promoted ahead of him. These morgue scenes clearly won't be for the squeamish (even if you covered your eyes, the sound of bodies being sewn up will most likely do for you), but they are in many ways the anti-CSI, utterly unglamorous in their contemplation of the flesh, which is presented as pale and limp and helpless, a lost cause - the only attention these bodies get arrives too late, and it increasingly appears as though Mario and his self-starving neighbour are going the same way.
Larrain's strength lies in staging scenes that, however offbeam, nevertheless hold enough of a kind of truth to tell you something new and insightful about the banal horrors of life under Pinochet's rule. Take the absurd, semi-parodic sequence in which Mario and Nancy burst into tears over an omelette - and go on crying for what seems like an eternity of screen time, as though to illustrate how depressed the country as a whole was. The deadpan, unsensational approach is such that, when the coup finally takes place, Larrain's camera is fixed on Mario having a shower, so that he and we miss everything save for the sound of a neighbour's dog getting hit by a stray bullet - just another of the quotidian brutalities dished out on that particular day. Throughout, we're left to pick up the grim consequences, much of Mario is to retrieve the cadavers that slop off his overloaded gurney and come to flood the mortuary's floors and corridors, the film's abiding image of societal collapse.
In Tony Manero, the sense of dread evoked was unpredictable - we knew the worst was likely to happen, but not what that might be when faced with a character prepared to do anything for the power that comes with fame. Here, though there are leftfield turns - Mario actually ends up with a career boost when the bodies start coming in, getting to don a labcoat to tag this new wave of Juan Does - much of Post Mortem proceeds with a chilling inevitability, as though that tank at the very start of the film were a huge, rattling sign of things to come. The big truth of Larrain's film is that, at this time, in this place, everything got crushed: the spirit, the flesh, any hope or prospect of a better life, everything. After the blood and semen spilt in Tony Manero, this remarkable film - a huge leap forward in terms of maturity and formal control for this director - can only ever end in tears.
Post Mortem opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.