JONNY HARVEY reviews Carlos Sorín’s 2004 comedy, Bombón: El Perro, shown as part of The Cinema Museum’s Argentinian Film Season.
Bombón: El Perro is a minimalist offering on what happens when a man on the scrapheap of life is given a second chance in the form of a pedigree hound, with director Carlos Sorín providing a gently funny insight into the dog shows and purebred breeding occurring against the harsh Patagonian landscape.
Fired from his job as a petrol station mechanic and forced to live with his daughter and her new-born baby in their cramped apartment, Juan “Coco” Villegas’s (Played by Villegas himself) mechanical skills offer him a second chance in life in the shape of a purebred Dogo Argentino, gifted to him by a kind widow in thanks for some work. This is Bombón, a dog of renowned pedigree lineage and with whom Villegas and his dog-training friend Walter Donado (also as himself) hope to achieve riches through his showing and breeding. However, all does not run as smoothly as Donado had promised, and though Bombón is a faithful companion and a success at the dog shows, his skills with the opposite sex are found wanting just when it seems to matter most.
Bombón: El Perro is a road movie, and as such typical for director Carlos Sorín and Argentinian cinema as a whole – as a road movie. The film’s narrative traces Villegas’s journey in his ageing van, with several events of the film being heralded by the roadside signposts. Adam Feinstein, curating the Argentinian Film Season at the Kennington Cinema Museum at which this film was shown, describes how road movies are an entirely suitable genre for a country still coming to terms with its dictatorship legacy, as stories of journeys of self-discovery – or escaping the past – have particular resonance. This film, then, is really no different. We follow Villegas from his miserable existence unsuccessfully punting hand-crafted knives to construction workers, to the optimistic final shot of Villegas and his cute canine companion driving towards a future of new-found opportunity.
An idiosyncratic aspect of Sorín’s work is his reliance on non-professional actors, a trend which he continues in Bombón. Juan Villegas, for example, was actually working as a mechanic when he was approached by Sorín to star in the movie. Honing in even further on his desire for realism, Sorín maintained a policy of never rehearsing scenes and using very little pre-scripted material, preferring to let the actors exercise a certain degree of spontaneity. This is perhaps the aspect of the film which makes it so enjoyable – that these non-professional actors with such little script can still make the story and their reactions to it so believable adds a greater sense of realism to the film.
Sorín’s frequent use of close-ups of the characters’ faces feels disorienting at first, yet it soon has a remarkable effect on adding layers to the film’s events. Bombón is a story told not just through actions and dialogue, but also through the focus on other character’s facial reactions to them – yes, even the dog. In fact, some of Bombón’s deadpan expression close-ups would actually put a large number of comics to shame. The subtle facial expressions of Villegas particularly add to the humour of already-funny scenes – his terror at Bombón urinating on the bank manager’s computer springs to mind – but also heighten the emotional impact of those where Villegas’s difficulties are demonstrated. When he suffered, it was etched on his face and made impossible to avoid. Such an intense focus on a character and an inability to look elsewhere draws you to them, ensuring the magnification of both his joy and despair.
The film’s comedic moments are perhaps not always the most high-brow. The laughs sometimes rely on old tropes – Donado, as likeable a character as he is, is still the funny fat friend of comedies past – and the scene in which three grown men try to encourage this beast’s libido isn’t exactly the most ingenious display of humour ever seen. However, that’s not to say it isn’t funny; it really is, and the film’s end offers a perfect tying up of loose ends while remaining consistent to the tone and style established earlier in the film, and Bombón overcomes his own struggles in a fitting climax. Yet, it seems that what received the most laughs were the more subtle aspects of Sorín’s direction: shots framing Villegas’s repeated side-eye glances at the enormous beast now occupying the passenger seat next to him. These shots are made all the more effective by their juxtaposition with those of the rugged and harsh terrain. Frequently cutting back to the dry, dusty, grey expanse surrounding the pair, Sorín emphasises the harsh world in which the two exist. Yet, though times are hard, this duo serves as a picture of humour and optimism, relying on each other to navigate towards better times.
In all, though this film, with its fierce and unforgiving setting and its potentially fierce dog (‘They’re known for their fighting’, his owner says) could have produced gritty, harsh cinema, the actual result is anything but. Instead, we’re left with a sweet-natured, gentle and funny film about friendship and self-discovery, ensuring that, while the characters hitch up their collars against the Patagonian cold, we’re kept warm by that fuzzy feeling inside.
Featured image source: allocine.fr