According to Lukas Valenta Rinner, the world will end not with a bang, but with a deadpan whimper. The emotionless characters that populate the director’s feature-length debut, Parabellum, leave their native Buenos Aires to the rugged countryside, apparently to prepare, physically and mentally, for the anarchic consequences of an ambiguous cataclysmic event that rocks the city (and possibly the planet). Yes, the apocalypse in nigh, though you’d never know it from the expressionless cast and bone-dry humor; if it wasn’t for the ominous Trent Reznor-esque soundtrack and smatterings of expositional radio and TV clips, there’s really no indicator that something sinister lurks around the corner.
Using dialogue sparingly, Rinner constructs the film as a virtual how-to guide for surviving amid the impending breakdown of civilization, with the film’s script occasionally implementing passages from a nonexistent tome on the subject. Since the guidelines the characters follow increasingly toe the line between rational and malevolent, Rinner suggests an eccentric commentary on one’s preservation or loss of a moral compass when the current social “rules” don’t necessarily apply once society is gone.
But this remains underdeveloped in light of the film’s rigid structure, which is too rooted in following the faux-guidebook that little regard is paid to in-between moments to flesh out the intriguing themes and characters; Rinner, just like the trainees, seems to believe that deviating from the guidebook’s text will spell certain doom. In one particularly notable incidental moment that the film could have used more of, tension arises from the neophyte soldiers clumsily mishandling their weapons in trying to adapt to a new way of life. It’s the sort of refreshing spontaneity that offsets Rinner’s Haneke-like tendency for long takes and stuffily immaculate compositions, all executed with a suffocating surgical precision.
A protagonist of sorts comes in the form of Hernan (Pablo Seijo), who’s used predominantly as a means of introduction into the film’s universe, and whose mundane preparation for retreating from the city (including going to work one last time and placing his cat in a shelter) stands in stark contrast to the general uneasy feeling inherent to a looming apocalypse. Once Hernan arrives at the training camp, though, the entire commune of trainees subsequently functions as a single entity; no one character, not even Hernan, is singled out as the center of the film’s story. Rinner seems to imply how the trainees’ individuality is dwindling within the cult-like group, but this notion is, somewhat unsurprisingly, a victim of the film’s stifling structure.
Parabellum’s story is so flat, with no additional context surrounding the characters, that it feels as if Rinner is inviting the audience’s most obvious interpretation. Nothing about these people suggests why they would be capable of the violent anarchy they enact toward the film’s conclusion; we’re simply meant to take their behavior as base human nature. Rinner’s characterizations are both cynical and lazy, even when one character eventually proves, rapturously so, to be the sole dissenting figure in the training group’s sudden campaign of violence at the film’s climax. But even this is diluted immediately by the film’s conclusion, where Hernan’s wholly expected return to a ravaged Buenos Aires solidifies the feeling that Rinner has made, with the series of silent instructional images building toward a known outcome, the apocalypse-survival version of an IKEA instruction manual.