'The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet': Film Review | Sundance 2021

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
An artful outlier.

A young Argentine man comes of age, and Earth endures a calamity, in filmmaker Ana Katz's elliptical black-and-white drama.

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet is very much its own creature. In ways that can pull you in and also keep you at a distance, it has no use for movie conventions of plot and characterization as it traces turning points in its 30-something protagonist's life — a life shaped by ordinary strife and joy and, for a while, a strange planetary phenomenon. The story of Sebastian (a soulful-eyed Daniel Katz, the director's brother) is elliptical to the max, the gaps as much a part of the storytelling as the narrative fragments that play out onscreen.

This reflects the way the sixth feature from Argentine filmmaker Ana Katz was made, over the course of several years and employing five DPs, each one working in luminous black-and-white. Connective tissue is excluded, whole chapters untold, and the two most extreme events in the low-key action are explained via drawings (created by production designer Mariela Rípodas), a fitting choice for Sebastian, who, as the story opens, is working as a graphic designer and illustrator.

Approaching the material from oblique angles and seemingly offhand moments, Katz (My Friend From the Park, Sueno Florianópolis) and her co-writer, Gonzalo Delgado, are interested in challenges both individual and communal, from the meaning of work to our relationship with the land. Sebastian can feel unformed and passive, but one of the loveliest aspects of the film is the unforced way it reveals commonplace responses as life-shaping decisions. For starters in Sebastian's story, that means choosing his dog over his job.

The title canine, Rita, is first seen watching Sebastian prune a tree in his yard. She does so without making a peep, but apparently when her human is away, she's given to crying a river. Three neighbors (Carlos Portaluppi, Susana Varela, Renzo Cozza) and their umbrellas crowd into Sebastian's rainy courtyard to voice their complaints, dressing them in expressions of anguish and compassion for the dog and suggestions that she might be experiencing pangs of parental loss — a sly swipe at the importance of psychotherapy in Argentine culture.

A solution to the problem falls through when Sebastian's boss (Valeria Lois) and her assistant (Fabiana Martinez) explain that he can no longer bring Rita to work. In their institutional illogic, to continue to allow this would be be opening the door to "anything" — as in "an office full of hens and everyone pole-dancing."

The gentle absurdist slant of these early scenes gives way to a bucolic mood as Sebastian takes a job tending a small farm. Sniffing the fresh air, Rita could not look more satisfied, and her romps across the field could hardly be more ecstatic. But the hoped-for answer to their city woes ends badly, and eventually Sebastian needs to try his hand at the rat race again.

His return to the city, which culminates in an awkward and fruitless meeting with his old boss, is a subtle exploration of the disconnect between contemporary capitalism and economic justice, a theme that runs through the film without devolving into didactics. Sebastian's train back to Buenos Aires pulls into a station named for Dario Santillan and Maximiliano Kosteki, activists killed during a 2002 demonstration for worker rights. On that trip, Sebastian is hyperalert to the half-eaten sandwich a stranger leaves behind, and makes his move.

His struggle to find his footing continues through the ensuing jumps from moment to disconnected moment — understated exchanges that are flashpoints for Sebastian, encased in memory. He's a giver, uncomplaining and generous by nature: At one point he's staying with his loving mother (Lide Uranga), and while she and her friends discuss their demands as teachers, the camera zooms in on the eggplant he slices for their lunch. He works as a caretaker for a dying man (Jose Luis Arias) and consoles the man's distraught wife (Raquel Bank). In his quiet way, he talks way into a job with a farm cooperative. At his mother's wedding — where her story of finding love cites mutual complaining as a first step in intimacy — he meets the woman (Julieta Zylberberg) with whom he'll have a child.

The movie shifts into lo-fi sci-fi after an asteroid hits Earth and somehow disrupts its atmosphere. Hand-drawn illustrations more or less explain what has happened, but it takes a while to piece together the effect of the astronomical event, which renders the air above four feet unbreathable, except with the use of an expensive bubble helmet. And so some people walk around wearing the bubbles while everyone else moves through their days in an uncomfortable crouch.

Katz devised this plot element long before the world was stricken with the coronavirus pandemic, but it resounds with eerily recognizable echoes: the way the world can change in an instant, how crazy-looking adaptations become everyday realities, and the way a question of enormity — "How are you coping?" — can become a cliché. "In less than a year we'll go back to normal, God willing," a pediatrician (Marcos Montes) tells Sebastian and his wife, for whom the question of whether to purchase bubbles becomes a point of conflict.

The film is bookended by scenes of Sebastian tending to plants, but the closing sequence differs markedly from the first in its vibrancy and sense of balance. Though it can at times feel wanting in dramatic heft or clarity, The Dog Who Wouldn't Be Quiet can also be revelatory, and its drama flowers in delightfully unflashy ways. The conventional wisdom is that movie heroes should act, not merely react. But the truth is that sometimes there's no difference between the two. Sebastian, like many of us, is confronted on a daily basis by the crazy things people say and do — and sometimes by the curveballs and comets the universe throws our way.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Laura Cine, Oh My Gomez!
Cast: Daniel Katz, Valeria Lois, Julieta Zylberberg, Lide Uranga, Raquel Bank, Carlos Portaluppi, Marcos Montes, Mirella Pascual, Elvira Onetto, Fabiana Martinez, Susana Varela, Renzo Cozza, Jose Luis Arias
Director: Ana Katz
Screenwriters: Gonzalo Delgado, Ana Katz
Producers: Ana Katz, Laura Huberman
Executive producer: Laura Huberman
Directors of photography: Gustavo Biazzi, Guillermo Nieto, Marcelo Lavintman, Fernando Blanc, Joaquín Neira
Production designer: Mariela Rípodas
Costume designer: Pilar Gonzalez
Editor: Andrés Tambornino
Music: Nicolás Villamil
Sales: Luxbox

In Spanish
73 minutes