Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 04, 2014 4:21 am 
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Summer discomfort, and it's not the heat

Benjamín Naishtat's auspicious debut History of Fear/Historia del miedo is a Hanake-esaue tour of Buenos Aires, a study of repression, discomfort, rage, tension, and perhaps above all a sense of danger related to class. Throughout this atmospheric meandering among a group of partly interconnected people -- masters and servants, guards and property owners, parents and children, lovers or "novios" (fiances) there is a pervasive sense of resentment and, as the title signals, fear. Of what, we never know. We also never know who these people are, so it is hard to identify with them and sometimes puzzling who they are. Explosions and light -- the latter's presence and absence, as the electricity goes off every now and then -- come and go as unifying punctuation.

There is a feeling here of potential disorder growing from social unrest that can be found in other recent Latin American films. In Marcelo Lordello's They'll Come Back (from Brazil, ND/NF 2013), siblings are left on a highway in the middle of nowhere because of a quarrel with well-off parents. In Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds (again from Brazil, ND/NF 2012), well off people in a block of flats are "protected" by a security company that turns out to have deep resentments. in Celina Murga's highly original A Week Alone/Una semana solos (Film Comment Selects 2009), children go a little wild when they are completely abandoned by their parents in a posh gated community. Unfortunantely Naishat's film is perhaps the least effective of these four because of the vagueness about identities and backstories mentioned earlier.

However, Historia del miedo has the power to haunt. It makes effective use of mysterious surveillance tapes shown on home screenes, as well as grainy films of what appear to be troops running around a building where an armed insurrection (of youths?) is in progress, whose nature they are not fully aware of. Also strong is the long final sequence at a celebration outdoors. Again, there is separation, as well as vague uncertainty and fear. A family is sitting around a table dining. No one speaks a word -- a recurrent theme, since a young working class character is constantly criticized for his troubling silences -- but then a youth proposes a game where each person says what he or she would like to be and have.

Then the lights go out, and most of the family go to look for the children they excluded earlier as punishment for throwing firecrackers in the pool. Now it's realized that they children might be in danger. The scene where some of the adults wander across the park of the housing estate, which they now know is vulnerable, is disturbing. Earlier, the working class young man with his girlfriend go "wading" in a polluted, reuse-strewn stream -- one of the creepiest moments in a film that strives for varieties of creepiness. Interestingly, all four of these films are set in times of hot summer weather.

As Peter Debruge points out in his Berlin review for Variety , Naishtat operates here by showing the various characters' unease without specifying it. How well it works depends on how inherently sick-making the surroundings are at that moment and how much we as viewers happen to be able to bring to the scene, which varies. It might not have hurt to have worked in more specific plot threads. But good editing and excellent, often irritating and troubling sound design contribute to the success of this semi-experimental debut.

History of Fear/Historia del miedo, 79 mins., debuted at Berlin. Screened for this review as part of FSLC/MoMA's joint series New Directors/New Films 2014.
Sunday, March 23, 9:15pm – FSLC


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