A Film a Week - A Dog's Death / La Muerte de Un Perro

previously published on Cineuropa

Despite its title, A Dog’s Death, the first feature by Uruguayan director Matías Ganz, is by no means a movie about dogs or a particularly tragic one, but rather a socially aware satire and a smart deconstruction of the petit-bourgeois lifestyle through a multi-genre tale encompassing comedy, drama and slow-burning thriller. The film has just world-premiered in Black Nights' First Feature Competition.

The opening shots of dogs running and playing in a field, set to calm, classical music, might initially lead the viewer in the wrong direction, as they embody the idyll and harmony that our central elderly couple, Mario (Guillermo Arengo, glimpsed in 7th Floor) and Sylvia (Pelusa Vidal, a newcomer to the screen after a fruitful career in theatre), are destined never to achieve. Sylvia is retired, so she spends most of her time in the house, constantly fearing that the housekeeper Guadalupe (Ruth Sandoval) is going to rip her off or that the beggars will keep returning to her doorstep. Mario, on the other hand, is an absent-minded vet who manages to botch one of his last routine operations on the titular dog. Mario tries to cover up this professional mistake by swiftly suggesting the option of cremation to the hound’s distressed owner (Argentinian actress-filmmaker Ana Katz), which she accepts at first, but then she proceeds to change her mind, and this becomes a driving force for the angry-mob protests that begin both on Facebook and outside Mario's clinic.

However, incidents stemming from simple mistakes and pure bad luck rarely come in isolation. Mario and Sylvia's suburban Montevideo home gets robbed and ransacked while they are on a night out, spending time with their daughter Veronica (Soledad Gilmet) and her family – her husband Juan (Lalo Rotavería) and son Felipe. Afraid for their future, the elderly couple temporarily moves into one of the young family's spare rooms, but the paranoia initially felt by Sylvia and embraced by Mario runs riot, not just driving a wedge between the generations, but also encouraging the pair to consider crazy conspiracy theories about recent events, spiralling into violence and even an accidental murder...

Director Ganz, whose previous work experience mainly revolves around television, also wrote the airtight script for his first feature, demonstrating great storytelling prowess by crafting a tale that is universally compelling for worldwide audiences, but also giving it quite a local flavour and lacing it with a quick-witted and ironic sense of humour. His insights about class-related paranoia and the fear of old age approaching might not be new, exactly, but they are deftly woven into the narrative. The director’s use of music (written by Sofía Scheps, who also took care of the sound design) as a means to dictate the atmosphere, especially the tension created through short bursts of high-pitched flutes, is also one of the highlights of the film, while the camerawork by Miguel Hontou and Damián Vicente paints a realistic, non-touristic portrait of Montevideo.

The real heroes here, though, are the actors. Both Arengo and Vidal have a complex task to take on, and both of their characters could easily have ended up as cartoonish sketches. Luckily, their instincts and control are top-notch, which makes the absent-minded Mario and paranoia-driven Sylvia strong and memorable characters, and as a result, the two of them really carry A Dog's Death on their shoulders.

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