Lukas Valenta Rinner knows why we love disaster movies. He knows we, as a society, enjoy a nice, neat narrative. We want there to be a catastrophic event, but something that is only plausible within a fictional world. We want strong, yet flawed human characters. We want some tragedy, but with an optimistic and cheery conclusion. In all, we want to be teased with potential disaster, but reassured that everything always turns out all right. Rinner understands these expectations well, which is why he is able to smash and distort them in his feature-length debut, Parabellum.
His film follows a group of middle-class Brazilians as they leave society to take part in a survival-training program near the Tigre Delta (which, not coincidentally, is a major tourist attraction in Brazil). The film follows the group as they begin to train in spa-like conditions, alternating between hand-to-hand combat and bathing in a hot tub. Slowly, this bourgeois scenario devolves into group survival, ultimately leading to murder, self-immolation, and extreme catastrophe.
In this second decade of the 21st century, catastrophe lingers at the edge of society’s consciousness. Uprisings and protests in all corners of the world, climate change, and fiscal disasters that produce discontinuities and instability, we are told, are here and will inevitably get worse. But we push these thoughts away. People dismiss climate change; they still have unwavering faith in American exceptionalism (or at least the power of the West), and they figure everything will work itself out in the end. Our cultural assumption, in dystopian films, is that the morally upright, empathetic, and resourceful band of survivors will succeed and reestablish society. But to Rinner, these assumptions specifically play off both the simplification and commodification of disaster scenarios.
The most overt arguments in the film are not straightforward critiques of capitalism, but rather comments on the mentality of the middle and upper class in relation to a disaster. In particular, the film addresses a flippancy in our cultural desire for these disaster scenarios. The training is almost comedic in its execution. The guests arrive, are greeted by attendees in polos and slacks, and are moved into comfortable rooms in a tropical resort. This Club Med-like experience is repeatedly contrasted with training in weapons, combat, camouflage, and survival. Common-looking men and women of various ages and sizes are engaged in this program, extending the comedy and supporting Rinner’s general thesis. Moreover, the compositions and camera moves are of particular notice. The camp, houses, apartments, and nature are nearly always presented with a straight-on or very slightly skewed static camera. These shots are juxtaposed with shaky tracking shots of people. There is a beautiful surface to the world, but bubbling up from beneath are instability and fragility, which build more and more as the film progresses.
At 75 minutes, Parabellum is a quick and not particularly dense film. According to Variety, Rinner’s stated goal was “to comment on the destructive influence of rampant global capitalism while toying with the cultural thirst for end-of-the-world scenarios.” After reading this, I had to examine my initial reactions and notes. This is a hefty thesis: there are apparently critiques of globalism, capitalism, and cultural sensibilities writ large. But what we get is not a grand portrayal of concepts. Instead, it becomes a psychological examination of a group of people faced with disaster, a film that is simultaneously personal and distant in relation to its characters. The film is at times stark, vacuous, isolating, but not always brimming with activity. I am not sure Rinner succeeds in supporting his intended thesis. Regardless, he has created a film that is troubling, one that sticks in your mind. In all, it’s a promising start for a director making his first foray into fiction filmmaking.
Parabellum plays as part of Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA’s New Directors/New Films series.