Many a film lives or dies in how it parcels out knowledge, in how it handles the hierarchy between what we, the audience, know and what the characters know. Suspense films often rely on us knowing more than certain characters — like that the engraved lighter has fallen from the hero’s pocket, or that the killer lurks just around the next corner. Adventure or survival narratives often gain a great deal of their kinetic appeal by having us learn new facts and circumstances at exactly the same time as the protagonists, the better to put us in their shoes. And yet, while Lukas Valenta Rinner’s feature debut “Parabellum” certainly has elements of both suspense and survival, the hierarchy it establishes is weighted firmly in favor of the protagonists at the expense of the viewer. In fact, it’s remarkable just how much it holds back, how practically miserly it is with the information it supplies. The droll characters appear to operate according to some sort of internal logic — but it’s one we’re not privy to — that we struggle to piece together and about which Rinner and his co-writers Esteban Prado and Ana Godoy remain stoically, and ultimately frustratingly, tight-lipped.
We start in a relatively understandable scenario as a hangdoggish man, Hernan (Pablo Seijo), goes about the ominous business of getting his affairs in order at work, canceling his telephone service, and placing his cat into care. News reports and casual background details suggest that this is a fictionalized and/or near-future Argentina in which some hovering disaster threatens, a looming sense of doom that has already sent the country into a kind of existential panic. At night, fireworks explode over the city, but way, way too many fireworks, turning what is usually a cheerful image into something paranoid, some expression of end-times malaise, perhaps.
But the world does not end and Hernan is next pictured blindfolded on a boat along with what looks like a tour group as they head out to the secret location of the survivalist bootcamp-style retreat where they’re going to learn the tools to resist whatever the impending apocalypse may have in store. At least that’s how it seems up to this point, which is when the supply of actual information dries up abruptly, leaving us to fend for ourselves. Hernan, who never utters a single word throughout the whole film, endures various training regimens and team building exercises with the other similarly taciturn residents, before they are split into groups of three and sent out into the wild on what seems at first to be a kind of orienteering exercise, that turns suddenly, unexpectedly deadly.
The strict formalist minimalism to which Rinner (an Austrian now living in Argentina) aspires does make the film a spare and stylish enterprise, in which the only humor is of the jet-black variety and the logic is that of a dream, or a nightmare. It yields some startling imagery, like a burning boat drifting away on the sluggish tide or the aforementioned killings, which are more evocative and shocking for happening mostly out of sight. But the needs of narrative chafe against the strictures of some of the film’s formal flourishes, particularly the near total absence of dialogue, when it starts to strain credulity that for such long stretches of such peculiar action or inaction, no one says anything to anyone, no one ever betrays so much as a sliver of their motivations or emotions.
Very precise calibration is needed to be able to preserve a story as an absolute enigma, as is clearly the desire here, but to toss in just enough narrative breadcrumbs to keep your audience with you. When it works, as in something like “Dogtooth,” for example, the results can be dazzling: dark and rich and mordantly funny. Rinner’s film, whether as a factor of his inexperience, does not fulfill that kind of ambition, though he should be congratulated for pursuing the opposite impulse to the classic neophyte tendency to overexplain. Instead, “Parabellum” ends up too in love with its own mysteriousness to really satisfy, and in that respect (as in many others) it bears uncanny resemblance to last year’s Argentinian paranoia fable “History of Fear.” Taken as a diptych, these two films suggest a mini-genre all of their own, perhaps a cinematic reaction to the widespread economic instability in that region that manifests itself in tales of inexplicable, millenarian neurosis. It’s a fascinating notion, but “Parabellum” continually just skirts this provocative territory until we start to suspect that its ideas are not so much enigmatic as merely underdeveloped. There’s directorial, visual flair here (props also to DP Roman Kasseroller), and a way with mood and silence and the unease that can lurk just beneath the ordinary, but “Parabellum” withholds so much in the name of its mysteries that we eventually lose the inclination to try and solve them. [C+]