History of Fear (Historia del miedo): Berlin Review

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An impressive debut feature that relies on visuals and the power of suggestion to talk about abstract notions such as angst.

Benjamin Naishtat's semi-experimental debut film looks at series of strange occurrences in the suburbs of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

BERLIN -- An affluent suburb of Buenos Aires is pushed to the brink of anxiety and despair in History of Fear (Historia del miedo), the confident, semi-experimental debut feature of Benjamin Naishtat.

The film has no character development or clear narrative throughline to speak of, instead offering a succession of snippets from the lives of a loosely connected group of people who live or work in a neatly laid-out suburbia or in high-rises in the city center, supposedly tranquil and safe havens that slowly becomes undone by irrationally mounting tensions that are caused by such unexplained occurrences as a house alarm going off, an elevator getting stuck, a car being hit by mud thrown by an unseen assailant or electricity coming and going, occasionally leaving people in pitch-black darkness.

History of Fear is the kind of feature that requires an active investment from its audience, making this more suited to festivals rather than any type of commercial release, though arthouses at the very upper end of the scale will find a small but very appreciative audience for this skillful and unsettling debut.

Though very much a film about generally human and thus group behavior, Naishtat’s debut arguably has two lead characters. The first is Camilo (Francisco Lumerman), an artist-journalist hybrid who likes to ask confrontational questions and record the answers for posterity, turning fleeting words into concrete evidence that can be examined by posterity. Even during a dinner party outdoors with friends he likes to initiate straightforward-seeming verbal amusements that can be very revealing, such as when he asks his dinner companions two simple questions: What would you like to be and what would you like to have? Some simply refuse to answer, which is in and of itself very telling, while others clearly respond what they assume will sound good to others. (These types of direct questions, disguised as an innocent game, directly imply the audience as well of course, as they did in the director’s short, El Juego.

The second lead of sorts is Pola (dancer Jonathan Da Rosa, making an impressively restrained acting debut), the son of a maid (Claudia Cantero) who, in an early scene, is asked to hold down the legs of a man (Daniel Leguizamon) who starts acting bizarrely in a fast-food queue -- one of the film’s first unexplained incidents.

Both Camilo and Pola occur in several of the scenes and though the film makes no direct effort to elucidate what class they belong to or what their relationships are to the other characters, much can be inferred from what’s simply put on screen by production designer Marina Raggio, costume designer Jam Monti and gifted cinematographer Soledad Rodriguez.

Indeed, it pays to pay attention to the visuals from the opening, a prolonged helicopter shot that shows, from above, what the inhabitants of comfortable suburbia stand to lose -- the more one has, the bigger the fear of losing it can be -- as well as how each of the homes and gardens is, in essence, the same when seen from a distance. Naishtat then comes down to earth to demonstrate that this isn’t only true of the inhabitants’ architectural preferences and ideas on outdoor pool placement but equally applies to much more basic things such as instinctive reactions to perceived threats.

There are few reactions as unconscious and direct as the ones generated by unanticipated fear and the closely associated idea of self-preservation. The director turns his debut into a feature-length exploration of how terror of the unknown can become a destructive force, initially just inconveniencing people -- like when someone decides not to open the door for a stranger -- but gradually revealing that, in more extreme forms, reactions to things people don’t understand or (sometimes literally) can’t see have warped Argentinean society as a whole. Parallels to films such as Rodrigo Pla’s more narrative-driven The Zone from Mexico suggest this is also true of other Latin American nations.

The sharp and intricate editing of Fernando Epstein and Andres Quaranta constantly straddles the line between normality and what the characters think might be abnormal and thus a possible cause for alarm. The cutting is also a key element that helps build up a constant sense of dread and foreboding, something reinforced by the score of Pedro Irusta and Maximiliano Silveira, with its drone-like sounds and frequent use of percussion. The intricate soundscape further completes the package as it suggests volumes about the places depicted (the suburbs sound like nature, the skyscraper apartments in the city are isolated in all senses of the word, perched atop a silent world). 

Naishtat  has previously directed shorts and more experimental work, such as the similarly titled 2011 Rotterdam premiere Historia del mal, and here demonstrates a distinctive flair for not showing or explaining but simply suggesting -- allowing audiences to imagine what's troubling the characters, making the film as much about the audience's own existential worries and fears as about those of the people on screen.

The English title is indeed a direct translation of the original Spanish, though “historia” also means story, tale or record, which all seem more adequate translations in the context of the film.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Rei Cine, Mutante Cine, ECCE Films, Vitakuben
Cast: Jonathan Da Rosa, Tatiana Gimenez, Mirella Pascual, Claudia Cantero, Francisco Lumerman
Writer-Director: Benjamin Naishtat
Producers: Benjamin Domenech, Santiago Gallelli
Director of photography: Soledad Rodriguez
Production designer: Marina Raggio
Music: Pedro Irusta, Maximiliano Silveira
Costume designer: Jam Monti
Editors: Fernando Epstein, Andres Quaranta
Sales: Visit Films
No rating, 79 minutes.