History Of Fear

Buenos Aires is a haven for paranoia and confusion in Argentinian writer-director Benjamin Naishtat's mesmerizing debut "History of Fear," though its title is something of a misnomer. Rather than chronicling the timeline of the listless quality that characterizes Argentina's suburban class -- and, by extension, those around the world -- "History of Fear" hypnotically sets its gaze on the present. Borrowing the beats of a disaster movie without ever giving the invisible threat a name, Naishtat explores the tenuous constructs that allow a subset of the population to deny the harsher ingredients of the world beyond their safety zone -- until it's thrust right in front of them.

The movie begins with a master shot that establishes its theme upfront: a sweeping helicopter shot that tracks the short distance between the suburbs in the northern part of town to the less fortified dwellings of the lower class. The image is contrasted with a series of seemingly tranquil events that abruptly turn sour, most notably an older man playing catch with a child who suddenly cusses out his elder. Similar disruptions define the cryptic first act.

Having mapped out the geography of the region, Naishtat and cinematographer Soledad Rodriguez mostly focus on closed spaces and the manias resulting from them (with ample nods to Michael Haneke), particularly with regard to the gated community where the story unfolds: A police officer is suddenly assaulted by mud flung at his car from an unseen assailant; a teen and his mother encounter a naked man attempted to infiltrate their vehicle; at a fast food restaurant, a young patron suddenly gets down on all fours and behaves like a rabid animal. Elevators jam and the power goes out. What gives? "History of Fear" does a better job asking that question than answering it, but the interrogation provides a continual source of fascination.

Each ominous event deepens the atmospheric dread as it registers on various characters' faces, the palpable sense of unease steadily coalescing into this experimental narrative's provocative raison d'etre. Its plot unfolds like a feature length riff on the subterranean reveal at the beginning of David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," when the camera ventures beneath a neatly tempered lawn to discover the monstrous insects lurking beneath it. But in "History of Fear," the bugs are a phantom presence lurking in the protagonists' collective unconsciousness.

Which is not to say they've been completely reduced to symbols. The principle recurring character, Carmilo, is a fastidious young man engaged in a curious project recording others as they describe their fears. The director has said that this beguiling centerpiece was inspired by video artist Bruce Nauman's 1985 installation work "Good Boy, Bad Boy," in which multiple subjects recited the lines "I am a good boy, I am a bad boy" over and over again until the assertions achieved a heightened chaos. The series of events in "History of Fear" achieve a similar effect. Later, when Carmilo sits around the table with various relatives (each of whom has encountered strange incidents over the course of the first act), he engages them in a game of naming their greatest hopes (what they'd like "to be and have"). None of them are especially capable of providing a practical response. "History of Fear" hovers in their state of uncertainty.

With so many fragmentary pieces in play, the movie can't possibly reach a satisfying whole. The intellectual drive of its concept maintains a gripping effect, but also creates the anticipation of a bigger takeaway that never quite arrives, even as its mysteries are ripe for analysis. Like last year's "Neighboring Sounds" from nearby Brazil, another critique of suburbia enacted with a disquieting mood, Naishtat hovers in the unknown feelings afflicting his subjects. And even without answering every question, he does manage to arrive at a tangibly engaging climax, with fireworks over the area uniting the entire ensemble,its  beauty clashing with a visceral shock value -- as if the mounting dread has finally broken through the illusion of tranquility. The lasting impression is that the locals have been oblivious to the darkness surrounding them to the point where they can't possibly understand it -- and neither can we.

Criticwire Grade: B+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Commercial prospects are limited, but the film should enjoy a strong festival run and may find a solid response as a specialty release due to its critical perspective.