The Fear (La por): London Review

A viewing experience which, though undeniably harrowing, never fully engages with the profound, dark issues it raises.

Catalan Jordi Cadena follows up his well-received, co-directed "Elisa K" with another film about the effects of trauma.

A dark and at times unbearably intense take on one family’s subjection to the physical and psychological abuse being visited on it by a tyrannical father, The Fear is uncomfortable viewing indeed. Part of the discomfort arises from the fact that rather than taking on the complex, messy explanations for such horror, director Jordi Cadena opts to observe it from a fastidious and highly-stylized distance. Offering no real hope, the film’s unremitting bleakness is both its major strength, giving it power, and its major weakness, stripping it of nuance. As with Elisa K, The Fear can look forward to a lengthy ride on the festival circuit.

The pre-title sequence is an authentic tour de force which the rest of the film can’t match. Indeed, it would work perfectly as a standalone, neatly summarizing as it does everything which follows. A family lies awake in their beds, scared to move as the father (Ramon Madaula) prepares for the day. After he has left the house, they rise and are in the corridor together as he angrily reenters, having forgotten his keys. He brushes past them, swears, and leaves again.

From the outset, then, this is clearly a family in terminal decline. The father departs the screen until the film’s last twenty minutes. But this film is about the effects of the fear he has created – a fear, which those final minutes reveal, is also his own. His son, 16-year-old Manel, on whom most of the dramatic burden falls, is trying to lead a normal adolescent life, but as he retreats further and further into himself and the music that comes through his headphones, offering him temporary escape, neither his friendship with Xavi (Guille Lloberas) nor his relationship with girlfriend Laura (Nina Pomodoro Laffite) are working out. Decisively, Manel starts to make plans to escape.

Manel’s strangely unnamed mother, played by Roser Cami, is passive, beaten, timid and insecure, unable to communicate with anyone in her family, while her professional life too is suffering. Their small, sweet daughter Coral (Alicia Falco), is also growing up in a climate of oppression which will scar her for life, meaning that scenes in which she appears are amongst the toughest to watch.

When the family is at home, darkly-lit, claustrophobic close-ups dominate, with light and space allowed in only during the exteriors. Lengthy, perfectly-composed shots dictate the inevitably somber mood, but also create the sense that the viewer is observing things from a careful distance rather than taking on the challenge of tackling this complex material head on.

The what of fear is delineated in great detail, but given Cadena’s insistence on showing rather than telling -- dialog is sparse and not always subtle, straining for meaning -- the how and the why of it are completely ignored. We observe the family’s pained struggles and suffer along with them up to a point, but what is lacking is the stronger emotional through-line which would permit better access to their inner lives.

This is particularly true of the father, who is presented as a cold-blooded psychopath with no redeeming features whatsoever – a cartoon monster, in fact, and things have been set up so that Madaula is given far too little screen time to come across as anything more nuanced. There can be no possible dialog between a monster and those unfortunate enough to be his victims, but there is a world of interest in such dialog which the script is condemned to ignore.

The tension is at its strongest when there is interaction between the characters, but the fact that fear itself has frozen pretty much all such interaction again means that, from the dramatic point of view, the script has created an insurmountable problem for itself. That said, the unfailingly oppressive atmospherics are indeed authentically painful, and Cadena is entirely coherent in his focus is on consequences rather than explanations. Soundwork is superb throughout, its crisp, high-in-the-mix detail considerably enhancing the already palpable tension. The occasional use of slow motion feels like a stylistic twist too far, as does the way characters sometimes look directly into the camera as though seeking help.

Production: Oberon Cinematografica, Glaam Media Invest
Cast: Igor Szpakowski, Roser Cami, Ramon Madaula, Alícia Falco
Director: Jordi Cadena
Screenwriter: Cadena, Nuria Villazan, basado on the novel: "M" by Lolita Bosch
Producer: Antonio Chavarria
Director of photography: Sergi Gallardo
Production designer: Eva Torres
Editor: David Gallart
Sound: Daniel Fontrodona, Biel Cabre, Albert Manera
Sales: Oberon Cinematografica
No rating, 73 minutos