In “Jaws,” Steven Spielberg realized it was more frightening to withhold the shark than to show it. With “History of Fear,” budding Argentine helmer Benjamin Naishtat takes that tactic one step further, delivering a tense sociological thriller in which he never explicitly reveals what is making his characters so uncomfortable. Nor does he quite explain who those characters are, a shortcoming that ultimately thwarts audiences from connecting with this unsettling allegory on the most fundamental human level. Still, as the latest neophyte auteur to kneel at the altar of Michael Haneke, Naishtat doesn’t seem confined to homage, but instead has fresh, regionally relevant observations to make.
Naturally, the idea of sharks is more fearsome than the more ambiguous phobias that lurk in the minds of those who inhabit the suburbs north of Buenos Aires. Yet in Naishtat’s hands, the subtext intimidates even as what’s happening on the surface sometimes seems inscrutable, the helmer aiming not to confuse so much as to allow audiences to project their own interpretations. Perhaps the most straightforward example occurs early in the film, when a young man, Camilo (Francisco Lumerman), asks the head guard of an upscale housing estate to investigate whatever might have triggered the burglar alarm at his uncle’s mansion. The camera remains on the curb as the guard goes inside with shotgun drawn: Have criminals broken in, waiting to murder the owners and steal their possessions? The film offers no satisfying explanation, but allows audiences to share Camilo’s apprehension for the duration of this uneasy scene.
First and foremost, “History of Fear” functions as an exercise in prolonged tension, as one scenario after another encourages the viewer to identify with the nervous state of the collection of individuals — ciphers more than characters — who resurface over the course of the film’s running time: the anxiety of being trapped in an elevator alone, the self-inflicted thrills of riding a roller coaster, the threat of strangers encroaching on private property and, above all, the suggestion that virtually anything could be waiting in the dark.
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At its most fundamental level, fear is created when people have something they are afraid of losing: health, property, life, stability, power, family. Only those without have nothing to fear. Stoking the collective discomfort, just as unsourced videotapes managed to upset the tenuous bourgeois stability in Haneke’s “Cache,” Camilo subjects those around him to a series of interviews about their fears. Over the course of an ordinary dinner party, he proposes a game in which everyone around the table must name what they want “to do and own.” If the scene works according to Naishtat’s design, audiences will soon find themselves considering the same question, and the instant one identifies these desires, fear is introduced, for there now exists something — if only an ambition of future happiness — of which they can be deprived.
But just how effective is this austerely conceived work at actually generating anxiety? It depends on many factors, but given that the director relies almost entirely on suggestion, the burden falls on the viewers themselves. Watching a roller coaster from a fixed position off to the side, where the tracks are abstractly framed and the revelers remain anonymous strangers, yields little or no vicarious identification with what those passengers feel. But stumbling around an exposed housing estate in the dark, after news reports have established a context of violence and previous scenes reveal the vulnerability of private property to unseen outsiders? That can be altogether more unsettling, especially when a child is missing and the film depicts the experience on the faces of his panic-stricken parents.
With virtually no music beyond that heard within each vignette (the exception being a low tonal hum that reverberates under several scenes), “History of Fear” relies on meticulous sound design to set the stage in scenes where many will find themselves flailing for sufficient context. Sometimes, not being told what to feel can be more nerve-racking than the strategy traditional horror movies use of emphasizing tension through score.
But there are also other tactics that, however cliched, might have strengthened Naishtat’s conceptual approach, including cutaways to a subjective camera angle (a la the VHS tapes in “Cache,” the lurking serial-killer p.o.v. seen in “Halloween,” or any chiller where a handheld camera lurks behind the bushes). While the pic may reject such gimmicks, it remains contrived enough in most other respects that one wishes it might have embraced a more established generic approach at times. After all, it seems odd to insist on inventing new ways of unnerving audiences when so many proven suspense strategies exist, especially in a film that calls itself “History of Fear.”