A Dog's Will

A Dog's Will ★★★

Letterboxd Season Challenge: Week 6 — South American Cinema

When the year began, A Dog's Will was hovering around the #50 spot on the Letterboxd Top 250. Currently, it stands at #20 (Earlier this week, it stood at #19.) Of all the films I will review as a part of this season challenge, A Dog's Will is the highest rated on the whole website. Three Colors: Red, Raging Bull, An Autumn Afternoon, Nostalgia, Network, and more... all lesser in rating.

Such is the burden of high expectations. But I can't say I was too intense on scrutinizing this thing... Abraccine called it the 63rd best film in the country's history, which is respectable, but certainly not canon breaking. I'm fine with that as a standard for a film of this sort. And Brazil loves giving their local cinema especially high ratings on this site, so why should this be the exception? I would rather one of the films on the top half of that Abracinne list to be here instead of A Dog's Will (Limite, Black God White Devil, and Barren Lives are the top three), but A Dog's Will is the more accessible of the bunch. Let them have this one, I suppose. Surely, Brazil's cinema has been incredible enough already to earn a few seemingly wildcard picks creeping onto our more English-centric lists.

Except A Dog's Will doesn't translate well. It doesn't translate well in the same way a bad movie isn't a bad movie when it's in a language you don't understand. Sure, certain nuances and styles of local art's past may have slipped by me, but I certainly don't believe amateurishness to be one of them. That isn't to say the entire film is amateurish. But the bits that are don't help its case.

To ask for forgiveness, there are things that I admire or appreciate about A Dog's Will. For how often people speak on this film like it is no better than a television production, in some respects I agree, but certainly not on cinematography. Cinematographer Félix Monti already had respectable work to his name, and would go on to bigger things later in the decade with The Secret in Their Eyes. His work here is surprisingly expressive, a little unstable, incredibly scenic, and always playful. The film more often than not looks really good, with exceptions coming from the more special effect oriented gags. Those scenes have a humor in how silly and cheap they look, but frankly, I have seen that joke in, at best, sitcoms, and at worst, dry program bumpers between children's shows. I mean it when I say some of that humor feels childish. Not child-like. Childish.

And that makes it difficult to compliment most anything in this film. Everything A Dog's Will does right is burdened by what it does wrong. The cinematography being an example, which is also dragged down by the film's biggest issue (which I will get to later), but then there is also the film's acting. So many of these actors are clearly professional, clearly incredibly talented in comedic timing, in expression, in the physicality of humor in addition to the verbal delivery... I only wish director Guel Arraes hadn't directed each and every one of them to completely mug half of their scenes, complete with over-exaggerated body motions and just a really common sense of overachieving on abilities we, as viewers, can already tell they deliver. Often times, their funniest moments are when the forced aspects of their performances are dropped, or in anticipation for a gag later in the scene, and the more subtle comedy of their roles shows itself without such ugly cartoonishness. I'd very well argue that every actor in this film has at least one great moment. But it's the conflict with overselling their jokes that kills it. That cartoonishness doesn't fully commit to live action, and gets caught in the uncanny valley.

Lastly, on the good side of things, albeit with less downsides to contrast it, is the script. Based on a play already having been made into two films prior to this one (one in the late 60's, one in the late 80's), a decent portion of the humor here is really eccentric and clever. As resonating as it might be in a cultural context, from an outsider perspective, a lot of it still works so long as I am willing to understand not all of it might resonate with me to the same degree. I'm fine with that. It is a comedy after all, it laughs at things I might not always "get." I still see the joke. I still find the joke quite funny at times. And other times it divulges into awkward stereotypes or predictability. That's the downfall, but it isn't as much a leech on the better scenes. It's an issue, but the good jokes are still made. I give the film points for that.

These compliments come with conflicts. And unfortunately, not everything this film does badly is matched with something done especially well. Which brings me to the film’s greatest issue: the editing. Or maybe the music. More the former. Bad music in a comedy isn’t so much a dealbreaker, I suppose. But bad editing? Every cut eats at my soul the slightest bit, and not in that heartbreaking John Cassavetes kind of way. The only real comparable in these absurd, seemingly random quick cuts might be Baz Luhrmann… and even then, Luhrmann is more in-control regarding those cuts than Arraes is. Besides that surface-level cartoonish, it never feels warranted either. Pointless and ugly edits that leave actors in different positions and even mistime a lot of their jokes. A more rapid-fire style of humor can still have been achieved through quicker actions and line reads, of which this cast can clearly handle well. The edits only act as a hindrance to such attempts.

I would rather have seen this film under the reign of a sheer absurdist, nuanced and dark, but still weird enough to carry this script, this cast, and this humor. Of all the names, I came up with Werner Herzog. Maybe that came from the cinematography, or Nachtergaele’s frantic performance. Because the script here can work, there are gags here that just completely nail the effort without overstepping the mark. Why not have a director who, in addition to a higher budget, has enough restraint to simply let the absurdity play out more casually? Herzog seems like a dumb request, but I’d rather that than fuckin Dziga Vertov over here, Guel Arraes. Not that quick editing is dead-on-arrival in a comedy, in fact a quicker edit is often the funnier route. It even happens here every so often, just not nearly enough to warrant the style when so many other issues arrive from it. It isn’t worth the effort.

It isn’t impossible to adjust around such issues, and a lot of its worst moments come in the first half-hour or so (the courtroom scene near the end actually has a lot of chemistry between such different characters.) It isn’t unbearable by any means, not to a point where I would stop watching completely and forever. And plus, as a result of its faults as well as its assets, it is a unique film in many respects. Again, not always for the best, but I can certainly call it memorable if nothing else. Removed from the excitement of its Letterboxd rating, this would be a cool little curiosity found on some obscure film television channel that is caring enough to include subtitles on their mediocre little films. This would be one of the better films in that category, or at least a standout of the bunch.

But here? Battling for position with Pulp Fiction and Stalker? Satantango six spots behind? The highest rated Brazillian feature on the entire website? (Twenty Years Later has a high rating, but isn’t included on the official list on account of it being a documentary. Do watch that film if you haven’t, it’s spectacular.) That anticipation I like to think doesn’t play a factor into my overall rating, as the things I like still appeal to me, and the things I dislike aren’t all atrocious crimes against humanity… I’m fine with leaving it at mediocre, or a short step above. It isn’t the film’s fault that people like it so much, and so I shall not punish it in the same way I punish myself by living.

Perhaps not the best way of engaging with the source material, but an interesting first experience with it all the same. If nothing else, its own confidence is admirable. A good script goes a long way. Just not all the way. Halfway, give or take.

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