Of Dogs and Men

in 69th Cannes Film Festival

by Alin Tasciyan

What would one do with an unkempt house in the middle of 550 hectares of uncultivated and uninhabited land along the border, in the ‘Wild West’ of Romania? Roman (Dragos Bucur), who has recently inherited the estate from his grandfather, arrives from the city to sell it but the mysterious locals who run a shady business in the fields do not approve of his plan!

Film culture has taught us that the story of strangers confronting hostile locals in the province doesn’t end well… In “Dogs” (Caini), the ‘sheriff’ is in an advanced state of cancer and unlikely to administer justice with a firm hand. It is for a reason that the old caretaker of the house has named the watchdog, Police, and advises Roman to become the new seigneur of the vast fields. If he accepts, Roman can replace his grandfather Alecu, the gang leader even the Communists couldn’t deal with to establish their collective farms, and the gang will become his loyal vassals… Roman is expected to respect their feudal, patriarchal ‘order’.

This skilful melange of Western and crime thriller genres with a political background is seasoned with surreal humour in “Dogs”. Young Romanian director Bogdan Mirica builds up a multi-dimensional structure that allows the spectators to watch his feature debut as different films depending on the point of view.

The influence of widescreen frontier epics in the cinematography has given the film its Western look. The desolate land along the border with Ukraine sets the perfect place for the outlaw and the Wild West atmosphere. There is nothing as far as eye can see. Warm colours of summertime, dry fields and the heat add to the atmosphere. It is not fully explained in the film but we understand it is a perfect spot for trafficking, any agricultural activity or new construction would bring prying eyes. The gang is ready to keep everyone out to preserve its affairs.

Thus begins the film, as a crime thriller: A dismembered human foot, still inside the shoe, rises to the surface of a calm little pond. Even more surrealistic than this opening scene is the forensic examination by the police chief Hogas (Gheorghe Visu). He carefully replaces the foot on his dinner table and takes out the shoe with a kitchen knife! The deadpan humour is the main bravura of the actor. In the age of CSI series, the contradiction between the high-tech, sterile laboratories and the primitive shoe peeling of “Dogs” is striking.

This last vestige of a man, recalls the famous painting by René Magritte “The Red Model” (1934) and its combination of human feet and shoes. The artist’s comment on his work could easily be adapted to the “Dogs”: ”The problem of shoes demonstrates how the most barbaric things pass as acceptable through the force of habit. One feels, thanks to The Red Model, that the union of a human foot and a leather shoe arises in reality from a monstrous custom.” (Suzi Gablik, “Magritte”, Thames and Hudson, 1985) “Dogs” in some ways recalls Magritte’s reflections on humanity and the mystery, wonder and doubt provoked by his paintings. Like Magritte’s hybrid figures, Bogdan Mirica gives his personalities a canine character. They threaten and attack strangers almost instinctively. They form a pack and one of them dominates the rest. They become very loyal to and protective of their masters once they know he is the one to obey…

“Dogs” can also be interpreted as a metaphor for the state of affairs in Romania. The region symbolizes a part of the country resistant to change. The region has endured communism and rejects the law and order of the European Union. Obviously, the authorities couldn’t care less about this remote end of the country…The police chief and his naive deputy are left all alone in the region, their section is about to be dissolved for administrative reasons.

Bogdan Mirica may be a newcomer but he clearly has an idea of the cinema he wishes to make and he has taken a confident step towards creating his own cinematic language. His style still needs to be refined but he is capable to create a chilling effect with long takes – the threatening headlights in the darkness of the night,  the endless fields, continuous barking of the dogs, harsh looks of the gang member… He proves himself to be a promising director with “Dogs” sniffing out the violence in men.

Edited by Rita Di Santo