The nondescript phantom of institutional collapse hanging over the Buenos Aires suburb in Benjamín Naishtat’s History of Fear owes a much-noticed debt to Michael Haneke—maybe most specifically 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance. But the film plays so smoothly as a portrait of an imperiled community, there’s no reason Naishtat couldn’t be discussed in the same breath as Yorgos Lanthimos or Lucrecia Martel. To assume his debut specifically addresses life in the aftermath of Argentina’s junta of the 1970s and ’80s is to let the air out of the filmmaker’s apparent project, a more withholding sketch of what happens across an array of different characters when their normative roles are challenged. That said, viewers looking for emblems of militarism won’t come up empty; the screenplay isolates blurred, buried, or defused traumas and demonstrates how their obscurity can breed insecurity in people over time.
To get an idea of Naishtat’s rendering: In one early scene, a sixtysomething security guard is stopped on his way to work by a pair of teenagers who ask him to investigate their home security system—to determine if someone’s broken in, or if it’s malfunctioning. As the grizzled cop steels himself and approaches the McMansion’s front door with a shotgun in his hands, his lockstep briefly matches the beat of the ceaselessly blaring alarms. Touches like these sometimes run the risk of becoming gags, but are usually complemented by Naishtat’s erstwhile talent for stretching distilled, unassuming moments out to insinuating and murky ends. The aforementioned cop’s maintenance-worker son, Pola (Jonathan Da Rosa), is featured in a neighbor kid’s miniDV documentary, but instead of giving interviews, Pola just makes frozen facial expressions into the camera, revealing much and nothing of himself at once.
Often in the space of a single shot, History of Fear will propose a lopsided power dynamic between characters, only to sculpt the scene to yield still more unreconciled tensions. With Frankensteinian intensity, chiseled and austere to the point of appearing dazed, Pola is the film’s ostensible hero. When he and his girlfriend visit a lake on a sunny day, they find that the water is filthy and black—and yet Pola drags her in, literally kicking and screaming, to splash around with him, as if still planning to relax. Taciturn sequences like this are Naishtat’s preferred way of making statements until the jarring final 30 minutes, a last act of remarkable assurance in its quotidian line-for-line detail. A group of bourgeois parents have a dinner party and the neighborhood has a disturbing power outage; in the dark, each parent’s differing reaction competes for the attention of Naishtat’s camera. But the film provides no consolation, because nobody ever has a clue what to do next.