'Rat Film': Locarno Review

Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
Unappetizing subject yields a multiplicity of offbeat insights.

Journalist-photographer Theo Anthony's Baltimore-shot documentary premiered in a sidebar at the venerable Swiss showcase.

It takes a certain kind of nerve for a director to entitle his debut feature-length work Rat Film, but there's much more to Theo Anthony's richly informative essay on the planet's most-maligned critters than its bluntly confrontational moniker. Indeed, the picture is as much a keenly observed anthropological study of the city of Baltimore — where Anthony resides — as it is about the four-legged friends/fiends who infest this historic port. Warmly received on its Locarno bow in the reliably strong, non-competitive "Signs of Life" sidebar, this low-budget affair will scurry into numerous further festivals in the year ahead and looks an intriguing proposition for limited release in all major North American cities with significant rat populations.

Initially working as a journalist/photographer, Anthony enjoyed considerable exposure for his shorts Chop My Money (2014), a punchily atmospheric glimpse into the lives of about street kids in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and then Peace in the Absence of War (2015), capturing the tense Baltimore mood in the wake of Freddie Gray's controversial death. Working on a bigger canvas and serving as his own DP and editor, Anthony develops what is already quite a distinctive authorial voice — albeit displaying a considerable debt to his mentor Werner Herzog, whose Rogue Film School the director attended in Los Angeles in 2013.

It's easy to imagine the Bavarian maverick reveling in details about how rats sometimes "dream of a desirable future." And one can almost hear his inimitable voice delivering lines such as "asexual cannibalistic rats preyed on their abandoned young," which pops up during a nightmarish segment about a 1950s Baltimore rat-sociology experiment. Like Herzog, Anthony is evidently fascinated by human eccentricity and the lives of those on society's margins — there's a palpable warmth, for example, in the way he depicts the engagingly laid-back Harold Edmond, a veteran member of the sanitation department's "Rat Rubout" crew.

Edmond and his colleagues have no shortage of work, with the rat population estimated to be at least as big as the 650,000 human souls who, like Anthony, call the "Charm City" home. The battle is joined by ordinary citizens, too, and Anthony tracks down several folk who seem to take considerable glee in reducing the numbers of "rattus norvegicus" as the Norway (a.k.a. Brown) Rat is known to scientists. Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University has been a center of rat-research since World War II, while its demographics and geography have long made John Waters' beloved burg a favorite locale for studies of urban fauna, such as Alan Beck's seminal 1973 monograph The Ecology of Stray Dogs.

Like Beck and company, Anthony covers considerable terrain — both physical and thematic — over the course of his running time, his speculations given detached, NPR-style voice by narrator Maureen Jones. His curious mind delights in discovering odd tangents, some of which are more non-sequitur than others — sections on the crime-scene dioramas of Frances Lee, for example, while not without interest, seem to belong to another documentary entirely, ditto a late sequence involving virtual-reality headsets. These are passages which might well have been trimmed if editorial duties had been assigned to other, more experienced hands.

Anthony is on firmer, more productive ground when he concentrates on how rat issues point up wider social concerns, pressures and inequalities — the real meat of the picture, illuminatingly illustrated by a series of superimposed maps which reveal Baltimore's shameful history of economic and racial segregation. As Harold Edmond points out, the city has always more of a "people problem" than a "rat problem" per se, and while Rat Film will be a less effective tool in boosting the resourceful rodents' reputation than, say, Pixar's Ratatouille, there's more than enough here to give even the most hardened musophobe pause.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Signs of Life)
Production company: Memory
Cast: Maureen Jones (voiceover)
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer-editor: Theo Anthony
Producers: Riel Roch-Decter, Sebastian Pardo
Casting: Michael Beaudry
Sales: Memory, Los Angeles

Not rated, 84 minutes