A nondescript group attend a survival training camp as the world slips into disaster in Lukas Valenta Rinner’s deadpan and distancing “Parabellum.” Shifting from comically surreal to absolutely serious, Rinner’s debut feature is something of a one-trick pony, playing with bourgeois notions of ensuring survival by paying tuition and going through drills under the watchful tutelage of “experts.” The irony, such as it is, is that the world really is experiencing some kind of cataclysm, for which the trainees, unflinchingly casting aside ethical constraints, are well prepared. Fitfully amusing and pleasingly unpredictable, the pic boasts ultra-controlled lensing that makes it a fest natural, and its short running time is a plus.
The influence of Carlos Reygadas seems discernible at the opening, as a striking credits sequence shifts to a starry night sky, the camera panning down as dusk emerges to reveal fields and the pastoral sound of animals in the environs. Then incessant percussion builds on the soundtrack until — bang! A missile explodes and shatters the tranquility. Something is definitely not right with the world.
Hernan (Pablo Seijo), a colorless figure in a monochromatic world of browns, beiges and bone, impassively leaves his office in the Argentine city of Cordoba as the radio reports on looting and vandalism. He visits his father in a nursing home, takes his cat to a pet boarding lodge, cancels his phone service, and boards a bus with similarly pasty people for a survival camp in the woods. There, the silent participants choose courses such as “Camouflage,” or “Politics,” or “Homemade Explosives,” interspersed with downtime spent relaxing by the pool.
Watching these too-thin or too-doughy middle-class trainees going through attack exercises generates chuckles, yet occasional signs of global unease, such as a comet streaking across the sky, provide a discreet yet disturbing corrective. Then Hernan, together with two others, invade a villa and kill the owners, after which the tone is definitively turned and the unemotional lensing flips from a kind of postmodern, bemused voyeurism to something far more chilling.
Rinner’s stated goal is to comment on the destructive influence of rampant global capitalism while toying with the cultural thirst for end-of-the-world scenarios. Whether audiences think he achieves his goals depends on how polemical they want to get: His nihilistic characters have the means to pay for their survival training, yet whether unbridled capitalism is what made them self-centered killers isn’t exactly clear. Full-screen quotations from an invented “Book of Disasters” highlight the trajectory from protecting oneself during a catastrophe to being an active predator in times of chaos.
Apart from the near-wordlessness of it all, most striking is Roman Kasseroller’s painstakingly observational camera, wedding Austrian frigidity with new South American cinema’s fondness for a kind of embalmed isolation (Rinner is Salzburg-born, with an Argentine education). Lensing is still, but with a hint of quivering that adds to the tension, and the spare editing works to eliminate what could be construed as manipulative energy. The disturbing final sequence leaves a lasting impression and, together with what came before, marks Rinner as an interesting voice to follow.