Some movies tell, while others show. Of course, even within the most abstract or avant-garde film, there is often a narrative, submerged, perhaps, or needfully constructed in the mind of the viewer, but even so, we can divide most cinema along a line of expository clarity. Does the film labor to make sure all viewers alike understand in the same way, and follow along the same thread, or does the film create a space within which viewers are allowed to play more freely, to make their own meanings from the materials at hand? Answering this question, classically, has also served to describe the difference between “Hollywood” productions, where clarity and impact are paramount, and many foreign films, which make the viewer do more work to come to an understanding of what, exactly, is happening. Dog Lady, a low-key and fairly unprepossessing film from Argentina, happily falls into the later camp – it is really little more (but this is a lot) than a book of days recounting the comings, goings, difficulties, and small triumphs of a homeless woman who lives on the outskirts of an unnamed city with a large pack of dogs. While I am probably biased to films that show rather than tell, and which are observational and “meandering” rather than running smoothly on rails, I must admit there might be more bad showing films than bad telling films; it takes some effort and purpose to create a narrative that will attract viewers, so the observational film can often fall into an “art for art’s sake” mindset that elevates anything “real” and unadorned to a place of poetry. (For a recent example of this kind of failure, see Heaven Knows What). Luckily, Dog Lady has only a few wobbles, and the solid acting of Verónica Llinás in the title role, along with an assured tonal sense and a point of view sympathetic without being patronizing or sanctimonious, allows the film to achieve a rough poetry which lingers in the mind of the viewer far afterward.
The film starts in a fragmented cloud of shots, low to the ground, and travelling, in which parts of dogs and the parts of our protagonist are confused. The dog lady is hunting, with a slingshot, to provide her sustenance. At first we might think this is a film about a woman with a confused identity, a feral lady who is one of the dogs that surround her. But no, we gradually see she has a much more ambivalent relationship to the animals, to the point that we begin to wonder if she even enjoys their company much, or if it is forced upon her. She is definitely the alpha, and enforces her priority – we see her smack overly eager dogs in the face when they try to snatch food from her – but she is not overly stingy either. Neither is she the alpha to the degree that the dogs kowtow to her, as they assert the priority of their numbers a few times, as when they tip over her barrel of fresh rainwater; all the same, we do not feel the dog pack is a menace, nor do we feel that the woman and the animals have a combative or competitive relationship. It is one of the main strengths of the film that the woman is not analogized to the animals, and that the animals and the humans have multiple and often conflicting relationships with one another, even as they live in a kind of symbiotic unity (although it is obvious the dogs need the woman far more than she needs them, except as mute witnesses to the facts of her existence). The film takes place over the four seasons of one year, each season being heralded by an intertitle. (This is one of the few criticisms I might level against the film: it could segue from season to season subtly, using the changing environment to cue us to the passage of time, rather than imposing it from without, which gives the film a greater air of allegory and metaphysics than the tale requires. The other main criticism would be the use of music, spare and moody electronics, which still detract from a few key scenes, as when teen boys harass the woman, and she finally defends herself by pegging one of them with a rock from her sling). We, as viewers, have many questions about who this woman is and how she makes a go of it. The film does little to answer the former, but, by the end, has resolved most of the latter. We see where she lives, and how she repairs and builds her structure; we see her collect water, shower, and cook; we even see her interact with locals, fringe types like herself, from sneaking into a more well-to-do woman’s shack to steal some necessities, to having a sexual encounter with a field worker about her own age. She goes to the doctor. She goes, with her pack of dogs, to a kind of demolition derby / spontaneous car festival. What is impressive about the film is that, while we don’t have concrete answers to this woman’s identity, watching her make her way in the world allows us to get to know her such that we can begin to answer our questions for ourselves, even if not definitively. The film allows us to glimpse inside her by way of familiarity; we begin to sense her, to feel her out. A narrative of a type does emerge, and the final shot, while not providing a climax to this narrative, does explore, in a quite simple way, the stakes at play in our dog lady’s tale. Perhaps everyone needs to feel useful, and necessary, for someone, and the dogs, beyond being companions, are also helpful to this woman because they depend on her. Like the best of the neo-realist tradition (in particular De Sica’s Umberto D), which it resembles, Dog Lady reveals the desperate truths at the heart of society and the individual’s quest to survive at all costs, while at the same time never slipping into a bleak cynicism or despair. Whether life is or is not worth living, or is or is not too cruel to tolerate, these films, in their objectivity, do not pass judgement; life gets lived because it is the only choice, but the presence of the animal, or any constant companion, provides solace and camaraderie, if not redemption.