An immense inherited property on the Black Sea isn’t exactly a gift for the protagonist of Dogs (Caini)
, the first feature from Romanian writer-director Bogdan Mirica
. More brooding than bloody, at least until its final reel, this is the increasingly intense story of an Ordinary Joe from the big city who discovers that his late grandfather, the owner of vast lands near the Romanian-Ukrainian border, was a crime lord and that his local roughneck underlings have no intention to allow the sale of granddad's property. Part ominous widescreen western and part Romanian New Wave film, this is probably best qualified as a slow-moving arthouse thriller. As such, these Dogs
should find plentiful festival berths and some theatrical exposure, despite the fact the film’s finally more of a mood piece than a fully coherent narrative.
Dogs kicks off with a beguiling opening shot, hovering closely above the ground of an uncultivated area of prairieland until the smoothly gliding camera happens upon a marshy pond, where a couple of air bubbles announce the arrival of something from the depths: an otherwise hard-to-indentify piece of meat. Clearly allegorical, since mysterious things from the past are about to surface in the story that follows, this eye-catching opening functions as a statement of intent of sorts, by Mirica, whose cinema is strongly visual and moody but light on actual explanations.
Thirthysomething city slicker Roman (New Wave mainstay Dragos Bucur) has come to the parched grasslands near the Black Sea that he’s inherited and intends to sell off quickly. He’s astonished to find the doors of the isolated house his grandpa’s left him wide open, though the stern caretaker (Constantin Cojocaru) doesn’t understand his surprise; “Who’s going to come in, the heat?” he wonders dryly. Why no one would dare to enter his grandfather’s country abode emerges only in a piecemeal manner, as Roman starts to question why the Communists never touched this vast property of over two square miles, while, simultaneously, he starts witnessing people gathering on his lands at night to take care of some kind of shady business by only the headlights of their cars.
With the characters’ bronzed skins, pearling with sweat; the pale yellow of the dried grass stretching beyond the horizon and beneath the widescreen sky and cinematographer Andrei Butica’s slow and deliberate camera movements, the film’s first act feels like a western as filtered through the austere and minimalist aesthetic of compatriots Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu, or a film noir mostly shot in broad daylight. Absurd or black humor, another Romanian New Wave hallmark, occasionally surfaces as well, especially in connection with a foot, still in a shoe, of someone who died about a fortnight earlier that has mysteriously turned up and worries the graying local head of police, Hogas (Gheorghe Visu).
The dryly comic yet deeply revealing scenes at the station of the local police force, staff of two, feel like deleted scenes from Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (which also starred Bucur). But Hogas and his colleague are introduced in a rather abrupt manner and they never quite manage to feel like an intrinsic part of Dogs’ DNA in the way that the third lead, Samir (Vlad Ivanov, the abortion doctor from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) does. The latter has anointed himself as the new leader of the band of misfit followers of Roman’s dead grandfather and his hard-edged personality and manners are amply foreshadowed. With his unkempt beard and violent demeanor, he feels like the antithesis of Roman the well-behaved city pretty boy.
Though the actors all bring their A game and the score and cinematography conjure the right mood, Mirica and editor Roxana Szel don't manage to always organically build outward from what they've established earlier. The caretaker, for example, simply disappears after a fight about a cell phone, while Samir’s dealings and character are never quite articulated enough to fully understand his (inborn?) need for senseless violence. Because of genre conventions, everything that happens in act three feels foretold. But on the levels of narrative and character, thinsg remain strangely unmotivated. There’s no doubt Mirica can film the hell out of a location or a character’s face but as for telling a fully gripping and involving story? The jury’s still out on that one.