Berlinale 2014 Review: HISTORY OF FEAR Is Brooding, Atmospheric, And Glacially Slow
History of Fear is set in an unnamed Argentine suburb, an idyllic community where rich families' vast estates are bordered on every side by barbwire fences and imposing gates. The presumed effect is to keep the people inside safe, but all it really does is instill in them the feeling of being under perpetual siege. One gets a similar feeling watching the film itself.
Like an Ur-arthouse Downton Abbey, the film follows the lives of both the gentry rich and the lower class residents of neighbouring slums who work as their servants. If that sounds like a simple enough hook, I must say that it took me a solid 30 minutes of screen-time to even figure that much out. The film is not what you would call heavy on plot.
Instead, what interests first time director Benjamin Naishtat is the prospect of creating subtly unnerving atmospherics, often in wide angle, single take shots, filmed in fixed positions a considerable distance from the characters. History of Fear is brimming with shots like the one above, and they tend to run on and on and on, ratcheting up angst unto the point where the viewer is filled with dread at just what is going to happen when the other shoe falls, when the violent break that we seem to be building towards finally occurs. It never does.
The point of Naishtat's style is to recreate with the film's mood the feeling of those well-maintained suburbs, places of falsely placid promise where nothing ever seems to happen, and yet it always feels like the world is coming to a terrible end just three inches out of frame. It is to mimic the feeling of being enveloped in stifling heat, the full-bodied kind that fills you with tension but robs you of the energy to do anything about it. It is about pushing against the upper limits obtuseness in narrative fiction cinema. It doesn't at all care about being a thrilling tale engagingly told.
And that's to the film's (and, ultimately, the viewer's) detriment. I'm not saying that everything has to be a breezy thriller, but dammit if History of Fear isn't a chore to sit through. You spend so long just trying to figure out what is going on, how one character and vignette relates to another. And Naishtat isn't doing you any favors in making it easier. His sole interest is in presenting expertly composed tableaus of alienation. And when alienation is all you have to latch on to, you tend to get alienated.
I could be generous and say that the exposition free confusion he creates in each scene reflects the shortsightedness we all share in our respective lives. That his work underlines the sheer stuck-in-our-own-little-bodies-in-a-big-and-confusing-world-ness that is one of the key motifs of The Human Condition. I could say that the alienation and uncertainty of the film reflects a real concern about economically unjust societies. I could say all that, but to hell with it. I'm not in a generous mood. I just spent the past 90 minutes being bored to tears by this goddamn film.
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