Carlos Sorin: El Perro (2004)

Another Patagonian shaggy dog story

Review by Chris Knipp

In El Perro diraector Carlos Sorin takes up the same world he depicted in his 2002 Historias Minimas. Again a kindly, ineffectual man is at the center of it, who's 52 but seems older. He's just been laid off from a gas station where he worked for twenty years. This time again there is a dog, but the dog is more of a star, and the dog unifies the film, which is all about Juan Villegas (the actor's real name) and not split into several different stories like Historias Minimas.

In the stark world of Patagonia where Sorin's films unfold his people, who might seem losers elsewhere, are more gently, forgivingly treated. Life meanders. It’s like a shaggy dog story, going nowhere slowly, but somehow it's okay.

"Coco" Villlegas (which they pronounce "Vee-ZHAY-gas" down there) is trying to sell knives he's made by hand with carved handles of special, rare wood. But they're too expensive, some petroleum workers tell him, and then to add to the humiliation the security guard on the property says he's trespassing and he winds up giving away one of the knives to the guard so he’ll let him off. Villegas looks for work at a remote garage but the boss yells at him for parking in his spot.

Helping a woman marooned by the roadside by towing her car 140 kilometers and then repairing its fan belt leads not to payment – nobody seems to have any money to spare– but gifts of homemade preserves and then, low and behold, a big white blob of a strange-looking pedigreed dog with papers included, offered to Coco as a gift. Its deceased master was French and was going to call his stud farm "Le Chien," which Villegas mangles into "Litchen" and makes the dog's name. Later we learn Litchen’s original name in the papers was “Bombón" and that Bombón, AKA Litchen, is a genuine Argentinian dogo, a breed that has a band of ardent admirers in the area. Obviously the Frenchman's widow just wanted to get rid of Litchen, but Villegas is led to believe he may have a treasure on his hands.

One is continually torn between feeling confident that in this world consequences are usually benign, and fear that something dire will happen to the main character because he's so passive and naive.

Coco is temporarily living with his daughter, but she won’t let him stay with the dog, so off he goes, apparently homeless, with Litchen sitting with his big comically mournful face next to Coco on the front seat of his little van.

Before long Villegas is involved with a big volatile fat man named Walter (Walter Donado) whose hobby is showing and breeding dogos like Litchen, who introduces Villegas to the band of dogo aficionados and proposes to partner with Villegas to train and show Litchen and sell his stud services. Third prize in a local dog show soon follows. The rest of the movie is as meandering as the beginning but the breeder’s enthusiasm and lack of restraint engender some excitement. The story ends in a funny way when Litchen’s apparent lack of libido is cured. Villegas hasn’t really gotten anywhere, though. He’s still jobless, closer to penniless, and practically homeless, but somehow it all feels humanistic and life-affirming.

Director Sorin works on a small canvas but his scenes can be memorable because they're so specific and vivid. He focuses up tight and close on the ruddy, un-fake faces of his non-actors, who seem pretty much themselves. El Perro is a tiny step forward from Historias Minimas in the direction of greater intensity and narrative focus, but Sorin and his collaborators accept his limitations as his strengths. He is one of those directors who must not push too hard. His Patagonia is the boonies, a region of low expectations. Villegas has never been to Buenos Aires and Sorin will never make it to Hollywood – or maybe even to Sundance. But it’s by remaining in this remote end of the world that he finds a voice a little unlike any other. One returns to his films as one meets again with an old friend who, however boring, is reassuringly familiar and unthreatening.

Shown at Seattle Film Festival. Released in NYC June 2006.