Think Michael Haneke relocating the concept of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village to a contemporary Buenos Aires suburbia and we get History of Fear – but with far less satisfying results. Argentinian director Benjamin Naishtat does his best to concoct a chilling socio-political allegory of a gated community, mounting plenty of dread and the atmospheric mood of a pre-apocalyptic takeover, but somehow ignores narrative momentum and cohesion in the process. The resulting film is an opaque, irksome attempt at tackling collective fear and paranoia of the bourgeois as their homes and handsome lawns play host to unexplained occurrences the screenplay has pretentiously, if not meticulously, built one after another without providing an intellectual and emotional pay-off.
Naishtat, in his feature debut, throws a lot of Lynchian sequences to his tableaux – a boy starts behaving like an animal in a fast-food store, a mother’s elevator journey constantly plagued by power cuts, a police officer’s car windshield flung with mud by unseen attackers – all non sequitur moments occurring around a working-class town. These strange, unnerving events, most of it are shot in cold, clinical distance, then suddenly bleed into the gated suburban haven of well-to-do families and handsomely manicured lawns, as emergency alarms inexplicably break out, wired fences are torn and invisible interlopers prowl the night.
It’s all very reminiscent to Haneke’s The White Ribbon, where a tiny German village is gripped with paranoia and anxiety, and Naishtat’s film aims to be somewhere in the same penetrating level of critique of insular communities. But, alas, his effort is more obfuscating rather than enlightening. It doesn’t help that sitting through this film, the audience perpetually pines for some shred of comprehension. After all, the director puts the viewers in a certain mind-space, in the hope of somehow connecting the dots together and make sense of the narrative and all characters’ stories and motivations – which never materialise.
What History of Fear does point to, despite of its refusal to give answers, is the collective scaremongering inherent in gated suburban compounds. The ‘fear’ in the title creeps into these households brought by the outsiders, who do maintenance work for the middle-class. However, for every moment Naishtat brings his thesis to the table, there’s a heap of confusion that threatens to bowl things over. A thuddingly dull dinner sequence punctuated with a game of answering questions of professional and materialistic desires get interrupted by a power blackout and fireworks. In chaos, the group of residents fumble around in the darkness, a state-of-affairs that unfortunately reflects the film’s predicament. Naishtat tries giving us something concrete, but with so much pretension and artistic remove, he ends up leading his audience groping in the dark like his main characters searching for truth.