One of the most striking recent debut features from Latin America was Argentine director Jazmín López's opaque, dreamstate-infused Leones. History of Fear, her countryman Benjamín Naishtat's debut, follows in the footsteps of that film's exquisitely formalist ambiances, and indeed was backed by the same production company, Buenos Aires' Rei Cine. It's an equally striking work, if certainly denser and less accessible, suggesting that a new generation of Argentine filmmakers percolating up the festival stream are interested in experimenting with style as substance rather than exploring a more traditional narration.
Yet, while History of Fear is a clearly slight piece that comes on, on occasion, as pointlessly and infuriatingly oblique, it also is a supremely well-crafted exercise in using the entire range of audiovisual possibilities of cinema to make a point through means other than standard narration. Its series of apparently unconnected episodes set in and around a gated community, involving both the residents and their employees, coalesce together not into a linear story but into a mosaic portrait of modern-day class inequalities, rendered visible through a collection of well-observed little daily episodes. Some of them are little cruelties, others absent-minded entitlements; but as the film moves on, they accumulate into a very disturbing sense of unreality pervading the moment, a sense that something is not quite right but people are pretending everything is just dandy, either through blithe ignorance or willful forgetfulness.
Mr. Naishtat impeccably creates a humid, suffocatingly ominous mood of "calm before the storm", his methodically stylish set-ups constantly threatening to throw the viewer off balance. But whether something is really happening or the characters are simply projecting their fears and anxieties is entirely left to the viewer. History of Fear is the sort of abstract puzzle that will leave many scratching their heads but will reward those who look for something more in modern art cinema, and it leaves you very intrigued as to where Benjamín Naishtat will go from here.
HISTORIA DEL MIEDO
Argentina, France, Uruguay, Germany, United Arab Emirates 2014
Cast Jonathan da Rosa, Claudia Cantero, César Bordón, Mara Bestelli, Mirella Pascual
Director and screenwriter Benjamín Naishtat; cinematographer Soledad Rodríguez (colour, widescreen); composer Pedro Musta; production and costume designer Marina Raggio; editors Fernando Epstein and Andrés Quaranta; producers Benjamín Domenech and Santiago Gallelli; production companies Rei Cine, Ecce Films, Mutante Cine and Vitakuben in association with KM29
Screened February 8th 2014, Cinemaxx 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)