A debut film that picked up a little heat when it played early in the Competition lineup in Berlin, Argentinian filmmaker Benjamin Naishtat’s “History of Fear” went strangely quiet thereafter, subsumed, it seemed, by the subsequent welter of flashier offerings. But now having caught up with it at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, we can suggest another reason for both its buzzy first-look reviews and its subsequent tumble off the radar: “History of Fear” is a tense, unsettling, evocative film that showcases terrific filmmaking talent and mastery of tone from neophyte Naishtat and cinematographer Soledad Rodriguez, but it has almost zero sustain: it fades as quickly from the mind as a night terror does in the sudden light of day.
Set around an unnamed and almost allegorical-feeling gated suburban community in Argentina, the film takes a fragmentary, elusive and often frustrating form initially as we skip uncomprehendingly from one scene to the next, only with some effort relating characters from a previous location to the new one, and only later still managing to get some coherent picture of their relationships to each other. Roughly, after a lot of hard work linking up the constantly decontexualized and recontextualized individuals, we discern that they are a loosely connected ensemble across class lines, made up of a woman and her grown son, their housekeeper, her young-adult son and daughter, and a family with smaller children who live in the gated enclave, and who throw an al fresco dinner party at which all the characters eventually convene, invited and uninvited. But having fitted this together, you are given almost no reward for your effort: Naishtet is not interested in creating a coherent, comprehensible storyline or even any compelling characters, instead he structures his film more as a series of atomised fragments–like flashbulbs popping in the dark.
Indeed it’s possible that viewed as an unconnected sequence of scene-long short films, “History of Fear” might work better. Because there is no doubt that many of those scenes are remarkably effective in creating a sense of twanging unease, and the whole would probably have more cumulative power if one were not distracted by trying to work out whether we’ve seen person A before and in what situation. That way, we could just let the odd little scenarios play out: tiny quotidien moments that inevitably curdle into something weird and sinister. So a trip to a fast food restaurant becomes a macabre theatrical even when a young man simply starts, slowly, to bend down to the ground, before suddenly contorting and spasming in front of the creeped-out onlookers. A naked man brandishing a plastic bag jumps out in front of an idling car, terrorizing the occupants. A simple game of football between a father and son takes on a dark tinge as a helicopter, belting out an eviction notice to the poorer neighborhood adjacent, flies overhead, and the young boy suddenly, almost involuntarily calls his father “a wanker,” the profanity bubbling up out of him as though unbidden. And in the final climactic set piece, the dinner party is plunged into darkness as the electricity fails and the group breaks apart, scattering into impenetrable gloom to find lost children, and all losing each other in the process.
The actual fear they radiate has no specific source, a least not one specific source, and the dexterity of Naishtat’s approach shows in how nimbly a particular person can switch from being the fearful to the feared. So while the social allegory aspects of the film are unmistakable, it’s not just middle class panic and bourgeois fear of the disenfranchized that we see here, it’s fear of otherness in all its forms, and always defined relative to which side of the divide you happen to be on at that moment. Overall it creates an atmosphere of choking paranoia that is extremely effective, yet unmoored to a real point or thesis. Which means that, powerfully as that mood is evoked, the film can really only be experienced in the present tense, and so fails to cohere into anything greater than the sum of its fragments, dissipating from the memory far too soon. Naishtat proves he’s a filmmaker to watch, for his visual style and ability to evoke such palpable atmospherics–once he gets a hold of a story, he’ll be a force to be reckoned with.
But instead of story, "History of Fear" displays an almost slavish devotion to the notion put forward most succinctly in its title, attempting to make fear itself the subject of the film, as if it were a tangible entity. And you can interpret the film that way, the tale of a beast that hovers just outside the frame, in the corners of the characters’ eyes, releasing odorless pheromones into the very air they breathe. But that formalist, experimental ambition is also the film’s undoing: what is there for us to reach, grab hold of, and to take away with us, if the protagonist of the film is an abstraction? [B-]