'The Decent': Film Review

The Decent still 3 Publicity H 2016
Jeonju International Film Festival
Another absurdist take on class war.

A meek maid's search for emancipation in a Buenos Aires nudist collective goes awry in Lukas Valenta Rinner's follow-up to his award-winning debut 'Parabellum.'

"If you want peace, prepare for war." The Latin saying which inspired the title and story of Lukas Valenta Rinner's first film, last year's Parabellum, still rings true in his follow-up. Revolving around, again, a seemingly docile protagonist's initiation into a non-mainstream doctrine, The Decent also reprises Parabellum's deadpan delivery, rite-of-passage narrative and deadly denouement.

It's a case of diminishing returns, though: While the austere aesthetics still invoke smiles and shudders, the satire itself — specifically, the revelation of middle-class suburbia as merely a theater of moral cruelty — is probably too deja vu. The Decent lacks the apocalyptic strangeness and intensity of Parabellum, which actually offers more to muse and marvel about in its much shorter running time (it clocked in at 76 minutes, compared to The Decent's 100).

Still, The Decent is technically accomplished. Iride Mockert's remarkably nuanced performance, complete with gestures calibrated to suggest her character's gradual emancipation, is echoed nicely by the slow and static camerawork from Roman Kasseroller and Andres Hilarion. Part of the Jeonju International Film Festival's Digital Cinema Project — an annual undertaking in which the South Korean fest funds features from three young filmmakers from home and abroad — this South Korea-Austria-Argentina co-production should still secure some decent festival play come autumn.

An academy-trained stage actor now better known in Argentina for her part on the TV series Viudas e hijos del Rock & Roll, Mockert plays Belen, a newly employed domestic helper in a gated residential complex on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Unfailingly muted, meek and modestly dressed, the young woman seems a perfect candidate for the job, a near-invisible entity who can do chores every day and then recede into the shadows when her employers come home. This is, after all, a world of order, where children enjoy the sun in nice parks and healthy, beautiful people jog past lush villas.

Just as David Lynch, Ulrich Seidl or Lucrecia Martel have told us all along, white-fence wholesomeness is always a sign of middle-class malaise. The house owner, Diana (Andrea Strenitz), readily summons Belen for more duties or simply her company at even the most ungodly hours, however much she pretends to be a courteous and caring employer. Her son, Juanchi (Martin Shanly), is an emotionally stunted mama's boy, a temperamental young man going haywire as he obsesses about winning an upcoming tennis tournament. The quietness in the house is rife with tension, as highlighted by the scene in which Belen's squeegee hilariously breaks the awkward silence in the room.

Shuffling her way through her highly regulated and rote existence, the expressionless Belen soon becomes the object of affection for the residential estate's out-of-shape security guard (Mariano Sayavedra). But her own passion actually lies on the other side of the complex's electrified perimeter fence: At first shocked by the existence of a nudist commune next door, Belen soon joins them during her off-duty hours.

Gradually, she finds liberation through the alternative perspectives offered by the yoga instructors, the sex gurus and veteran naturists recalling their past declarations of fighting for their cause "to the death." It soon turns out that this is more than just nostalgia, as the nudists — including Belen — eventually renounce their reclusion and avenge their own marginalization in the film's final reel.

The climactic bloodbath might be a shock to the system, but The Decent is not as subversive as it could have been. Rather than contrasting the bourgeoisie's banal mores with supposedly candid values advocated by countercultures, Rinner and his fellow screenwriters would have been better served by emphasizing the similarities between the two. While showing the norms of boring middle-class life, they could easily have pointed out the similarly regulatory modes of liberation perpetuated by the cult-like nudists: One svengali preaches celibacy, while another commune member shoots parrots to rid the "proper food cycle" of "pests."

This would have been an interesting approach given how alternative lifestyles have become increasingly codified and commodified, and in the future it would be more audacious for Rinner to further develop, or evolve past, the minimalist approach he seems to have already polished and perfected.

Production companies: Nabis Filmgroup
Cast: Iride Mockert, Martin Shanly, Andrea Strenitz, Mariano Sayavedra
Director: Lukas Valenta Rinner
Screenwriters: Ana Godoy, Ariel Gurevich, Lukas Valenta Rinner, Martin Shanly
Producers: Ana Godoy, Nicolas Payueta, Lukas Valenta Rinner
Directors of photography: Roman Kasseroller, Andres Hilarion
Costume designer: Pilar Gonzalez
Editor: Ana Godoy
Music: You Jong-ho, Kim Ji-min
International Sales: Nabis Filmgroup

In Spanish

Not rated, 100 minutes