Thursday, June 13, 2024

“THE DOG THIEF”

THE STORY – Set in the Bolivian capital of La Paz, “The Dog Thief” centers on young teenager Martin, a shoeshine boy working on the city streets. While he has a room in a large, old house courtesy of his late mother’s close friend, he is an orphan with few friends and fewer avenues to support himself. But hope exists in the form of Martin’s best client, Mr. Novoa, a lonely tailer whose sole friend is Astor, a beautiful German Shepherd he cares for like a son. Initially motivated by a possible reward, Martin steals Astor. But as Martin and Mr. Novoa spend more time together, a bond develops that neither anticipates.

THE CAST – Alfredo Castro, Franklin Aro, Teresa Ruiz, María Luque, Julio César Altamirano & Ninón Dávalos

THE TEAM – Vinko Tomičić Salinas (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes


In the wonderful diaspora of cinema, it often seems that current films coming from South America are usually lost in the shuffle in our current cinematic landscape. Sure, there have been prominent contemporary filmmakers derived from Latin America (often Mexico), such as Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Still, there hasn’t been a spark that has ignited mainstream interest in these stories, especially compared to Asian cinema in the past decade. It often feels too far and between having to search out for these undiscovered talents whose work should be platformed more often. Which is why it’s thoroughly enjoyable to discover not only Vinko Tomičić Salinas’s solo directorial debut feature “The Dog Thief” displays he’s more than a capable talent on his own, but an emerging voice that we should all be keeping an eye on.

“The Dog Thief” follows Martín (played by Franklin Aro), a young orphan struggling to get through each day in the streets of La Paz, Bolivia. He’s having issues in school (both academically and socially), secretly living with his deceased mother’s friend, all the while shining shoes, trying to scrape enough money to earn a hot meal. Slowly, Martín becomes consumed by the idea that one of his frequent customers, Mr. Novoa (played by Alfredo Castro), could be his father. After Martín takes part in stealing Mr. Novoa’s dog as a ploy for financial gain, things begin to go awry. The troubled teen begins to bond with the older gentleman, realizing that with this scheme, he could lose much more than he originally intended. As a filmmaker, Salinas taps into a more naturalistic style in the vein of Italian neorealism and the films that were spawned by the Third Cinema movement in the 70s. There’s an inherent patience embedded in “The Dog Thief” that is greatly appreciated. For long periods of the film, we see Martín go about his daily life enamored by the most menial things. Aro’s performance, in a way, reminds me of Sandro Panseri’s work in “Il Posto.” Due to the “lack of acting,” Aro’s work can come off as stilted at times, yet it is serviceable enough for the character of Martín and the film as a whole. Salinas’ casting of predominantly novice performers lends a novelty and authenticism to “The Dog Thief.” Audiences can feel the directors’ attempt to blend a performer with their performance, which creates work that feels incredibly lived in. The rest of the supporting cast is solid, most notably Castro, who not only brings a degree of experience to the ensemble but is also well suited to act opposite of Aro.

One aspect of “The Dog Thief” that has lingered in my thoughts is how multifaceted is the dynamic between Martín and Mr. Novoa. Audiences are subjected to witness this fellowship built on deceit and how it slowly erodes our protagonist’s consciousness. It’s also interesting to see how these two characters who share similar feelings are completely different individuals. One is bound by financial disparity and what is perceived as a satiable yearning for a parental figure to alleviate their burdens. Meanwhile, the other is on the backend of his lonely life, desperate to fill an empty void with whatever he can find (and in this case, it’s Martín becoming a surrogate for his missing pet). Seeing how Martin can often conflate these varying factors due to the same feeling they elicit leads to heart-stirring results, even if it tends to teter towards a more predictable outcome.

From a technical standpoint, Salinas’s direction is quite impressive. With “The Dog Thief,” he conveys its rich array of emotions through Sergio Armstrong’s mesmerizing cinematography. Salinas exquisitely implements Armstrong’s work to capture frustration and abandonment with lingering shots of characters’ ever-evolving expressions. The city of La Paz is also captured with a somewhat harsh yet honest sentimentality. Each detour down a cobblestone road or casual hangout in century-old buildings is displayed in all its beauty. Salinas sincerely makes the city feel like a living, breathing entity, leading to the cinematography becoming the definitive highlight of “The Dog Thief.” The score by French composer Wissam Hojeij also stood out, blending and implementing jazz-based motifs alongside Bolivian music. Ursula Barba Hopfner’s precise editing is another factor that helps pace the film at a solid rate for its brisk 90-minute runtime.

Despite the overall characterization between these two main characters and creative premise, “The Dog Thief” falters in its all too familiar manner. The screenplay by Salinas is compact, not wasting any of its or the audiences getting dragged along in unnecessary storylines. He doesn’t fall into the trap that most debut filmmakers often find themselves indulging in. The cyclical nature of where the story ends up and what Salinas is trying to say is appreciated, but it feels less materialized than other aspects of the script. For some, the conclusion of “The Dog Thief” could come off as disatisfying, especially with how good everything proceeding it is. These few issues don’t detract from the quality of Salinas’ work or diminish the staying power of “The Dog Thief.” It may fall in the shadows of films from which it clearly draws inspiration, but “The Dog Thief” is an effective directorial debut from someone whose work we should take note of.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A fascinating exploration of desperation and companionship anchored by two solid lead performances. Salinas is a more than competent filmmaker in terms of his technical filmmaking. The vividly beautiful cinematography by Sergio Armstrong is excellent.

THE BAD - While the characterization between the two leads is fantastic, the unique premise plays out in a familiar fashion, following the mold of films it's inspired by, leading to a somewhat unfulfilling conclusion.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Giovanni Lago
Giovanni Lago
Devoted believer in all things cinema and television. Awards Season obsessive and aspiring filmmaker.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>A fascinating exploration of desperation and companionship anchored by two solid lead performances. Salinas is a more than competent filmmaker in terms of his technical filmmaking. The vividly beautiful cinematography by Sergio Armstrong is excellent.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>While the characterization between the two leads is fantastic, the unique premise plays out in a familiar fashion, following the mold of films it's inspired by, leading to a somewhat unfulfilling conclusion.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE DOG THIEF"