A cinematic ordeal to be endured rather than enjoyed, Dog Flesh (Carne de perro) is a grueling feature debut from young Chilean writer-director Fernando Guzzoni. Suffocatingly claustrophobic and often almost unwatchably unpleasant – animal lovers should steer well clear – it’s a well-made but somewhat self-consciously grim character study of an ex-soldier plunging into existential crisis after a comrade’s suicide.
Premiering at San Sebastian’s Kutxa New Directors competition, the Chile-France-Germany co-production scooped one of the most lucrative prizes in world cinema – worth €90,000 ($116,000) – and this success will doubtless lead to further festival bookings. But while Guzzoni is very much one to watch, the 29-year-old’s follow-up to mid-length documentary The Redhead (2008) – which he co-directed with Werner Giesen – is more a matter of potential than achievement.
His bare-bones screenplay relies on evoking a certain degree of sympathy for the devil, as middle-aged protagonist Alejandro (Alejandro Goic) seemingly has disturbing deeds in his military past, has driven away his wife (Amparo Noguera) and young daughter, and suffers from severe anger-management issues. Over the course of several days we observe, usually at extremely close range, Alejandro going about his daily business under a cloud of worry that he may end up taking the same exit route as his guilt-stricken brother-in-arms.
A taxi-driver without a taxi while his cab undergoes repairs, Alejandro descends into a Travis Bickle spiral of post-traumatic stress, paranoid depression and extreme violence – the latter most horrifyingly inflicted on his hapless, if noisy, old pet dog. Driven to distraction by the animal’s backyard barking, Alejandro’s solution is to calmly boil a pan of water and hurl it over the offending canine. But whereas this assault is obscured by the blurriness of hand-held camerawork, Guzzoni presents the resulting injuries in stomach-churningly horrible detail and considerable length.
Animal abuse is perhaps the one area of cinema where audiences are grateful for a little “giveaway” incompetence from filmmakers, but here Guzzoni and his team achieve sickeningly convincing effects which will drive many viewers towards the exits around the halfway mark. Those who remain will be heartily relieved by one sentence buried quite deep in the concluding credit-roll: En esta película no se maltrato ningún animal (“no animal was harmed in the making of this film”). Guzzoni might perhaps have been better advised to position this disclaimer at the start of their picture, however, thus reducing the level of the audience distress without compromising our understanding of Alejandro’s troubled psyche.
Such cruelties are presumably intended to hint at atrocities committed a military career which, given Alejandro’s age, probably involved serving General Pinochet’s 1974-1990 dictatorship – while Goic is 43, his character looks perhaps a decade older. But with the spoken dialogue sparse and generally uninformative, Guzzoni perhaps goes too far into elliptical, enigmatic subtlety, so that if anything we may conclude the very worst about Alejandro’s misdeeds (press-notes specify he was a torturer).
Spending 80 minutes in such tight proximity to such a repellent individual is by any measure a challenge, and it’s debatable whether the rewards are ultimately worthwhile. Guzzoni’s study of a furious, bereaved, emotionally constipated macho-man, taking out his frustrations on a four-legged friend, arrives only a couple of years after Paddy Considine‘s similarly-themed but more nuanced Tyrannosaur, while the lack of background context and any hint of humor means that Dog Flesh also suffers in comparison with Pablo Larraín‘s darkly comic 2008 study of Pinochet-era psychopathy, Tony Manero (whose star Fernando Castro cameos here).
While adhering closely to the unadorned, patience-taxing style that’s become the default standard for global art-cinema, Guzzoni’s picture consistently impresses on the technical side. Disconcertingly up-close-and-personal camerawork is provided by Bárbara Álvarez – the DP also responsible for Lucrécia Martel‘s similarly unsettling The Headless Woman (2009) and Chile’s big current festival-circuit favorite Thursday Till Sunday, by Dominga Sotomayor Castillo. Performances are suitably dour, with Goic, best known as the long-suffering husband in Sebastian Silva‘s The Maid (2009), hauntingly compelling as a man who, whatever he did or didn’t do as a younger man, is now both perpetrator and victim of seemingly inescapable torments.
Venue: San Sebastian – Donostia Film Festival (New Directors), September 26, 2012
Production company: Ceneca
Cast: Alejandro Goic, Amparo Noguera, Daniel Alcaino, Sergio Hernández, María Gracia Omegna
Director / Screenwriter: Fernano Guzzoni
Producer: Adrián Solar
Director of photography: Bárbara Álvarez
Production designer: Bernardita Baeza
Costume designer: Mary Anne Smith
Editor: Javier Estévez
Sales agent: FiGa, Los Angeles
No MPAA rating, 80 minutes