'Parabellum': Rotterdam Review

Parabellum Still - H 2015
Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Parabellum Still - H 2015

Sharp-edged calling-card with killer payoff.

Pablo Seijo stars in Lukas Valenta Rinner's debut feature, an apocalyptic dark comedy from Argentina premiering in competition at the Netherlands event.

The characters in Lukas Valenta Rinner's mordantly droll Parabellum are much too old to be Boy and Girl Scouts, but they certainly adhere to the organizations' famous motto, "Be Prepared". A promisingly confident debut feature for the Austrian writer-director—who's been based in Argentina for several years and who shot the picture there—it was one of the more noteworthy contenders for the Tiger Awards at Rotterdam, and should enjoy its share of further festival bookings over the coming months.

Rinner's approach to dialogue, characterization and narrative development is one of austere minimalism, and his gnomic parsimony may prove frustrating for some. There's a whiff of affectation, for example, about the fact that his moustachioed everyman protagonist (Pablo Seijo)—referred to once as Senor Oviedo in the film itself, and identified as Hernan in the closing credits—utters not a single word from start to finish. We observe him quitting his Buenos Aires job and apartment, giving up his cat for adoption, terminating his telephone contract and heading into the countryside to take up residence—perhaps permanently?—at a mysterious training-camp.

With the country racked by unspecified crisis ("A tragic situation is developing in Argentina" wails a news-bulletin), a dozen or so ordinary citizens join Hernan at an establishment that's half boot-camp, half holiday resort where they are taught basic survival and combat methods. The bulk of the dialogue comprises the formalized talk of the instructors during the lessons, and there's minimal interaction between the 'Explorers': mostly middle-aged office-worker types who plod around with glum, Bressonian resignation.

So, what's going on? The title provides a clue, referring as it does to the adage 'Si vis pacem, para bellum' by the 5th century Latin writer Vegetius, usually translated as "If you want peace, prepare for war" and the motto of numerous military and paramilitary outfits. A further literary aspect is provided by ominous white-on-red intertitles taken from 'The Book of Disasters'—which may or may not be an imaginary volume—such as "New circumstances command new rules."

The tone of the early and middle sections is of slightly off-kilter dark comedy, but the chuckle-inducing mood suddenly shifts around the 50-minute mark when Hernan and two of his compadres—Celina (Eva Bianco) and hollow-eyed twentysomething Juan (Martin Shanly)—stage a murderous raid on an isolated family home and take up residence. As usual, Rinner's evident fondness for elliptical plotting prevents us from getting a clear handle on exactly what's going on, especially in relation to the psychologically disturbed Juan. There's the sense that the screenplay, co-written with Esteban Prado and co-editor Ana Godoy, could profitably have been expanded a little to fill in a few enigmatic gaps.

All qualms and quibbles, however, are blasted away by a startling, quietly magnificent final shot which makes superb use of Roman Kasseroller's color-leached 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography and answers the mystery of the meteor-like trails occasionally spotted in the sky throughout the running-time. This crackerjack climax, like the witty and arrestingly bold pre-titles prologue, showcases Rinner's flair and economy in a manner that makes him a name to note, regardless of which side of the Atlantic he elects to operate.

Production companies: Nabis Filmgroup, La Pobladora Cine, 2Mcine
Cast: Pablo Seijo, Eva Bianco, Martin Shanly
Director: Lukas Valenta Rinner
Screenwriters: Lukas Valenta Rinner, Ana Godoy, Esteban Prado
Producers: Lukas Valenta Rinner, Alex Piperno, Juan Pablo Martinez
Cinematographer: Roman Kasseroller
Production designer: Valentina Dariomerlo
Costume designer: Ramona Gutierrez
Editors: Ana Godoy, Javier Favot
Composer: Dino Spiluttini
Sales: Nabis Filmgroup, Buenos Aires
No Rating, 76 minutes