Mariana is a 42-year-old member of Chile’s upper class. Her life is full and empty at the same time. Her mother left the family years ago. And her father does not take her seriously, pushing her around and ignoring her opinions (and rights) when it comes to running the family business. Her husband is a bad-tempered Argentine lawyer whose feelings for her are long gone. Still, they are currently trying to have a child through expensive IVF treatments. Mariana also runs an art gallery that exhibits bizarre modern art pieces no-one in their right mind would buy. And recently, she has begun taking riding lessons.
Her riding instructor intrigues her. He is an upstanding man with deep personal dignity. And yet he stands accused of having committed crimes for Pinochet’s junta. As Mariana starts snooping around and putting her nose where it does not belong, she begins to see things around her she had previously ignored. And she will have to decide whether she actually wants to know, or if she prefers staying ignorant.
Los Perros has the aim to question beliefs and “certainties”. And as writer/director Marcela Said tries to rattle some cages and to stir things up, she creates a fitting atmosphere for precisely that purpose. This becomes clear right from the start with an extremely unsettling score music, created by newcomer Gregoire Auger. And throughout this film, the feeling of unease never lets off. The horses in the film, for example, are frequently displaying signs of both unease and restiveness. And many a scene is accompanied by the sound of dogs barking in the distance at some perceived danger or intrusion.
Likewise, there are many instances of hidden violence or disturbances either around Mariana’s life or just beneath its surface. The bizarre and violent imagery of the art pieces in her gallery is one such symbol the film chooses, as are dead dogs, or the boggy state of the water in Mariana’s pool. The number of such symbols in Said’s drama is endless – probably too many for a film of this scope and length – and most of them are representing the violent past that is not properly addressed in Chile, the violence currently lurking in society, and the issues in Mariana’s immediate environment that she has so far ignored.
But some of these symbols are multi-layered, and the boggy pool water surely also represents her stale and loveless marriage. And while the film’s main purpose seems to be to criticise Chile’s establishment for failing to take a closer look at their own past, the “progressive” forces in this film hardly appear in a shining light. Progress in this film takes the form of a vigilante mob, mindless violence, a shady, resentful prosecutor, and a questionable court case. This film, therefore, is encouraging people to look beyond black and white.
As with the symbolism, Said also seems to overburden the film in terms of topics. She does, for example, criticise religion as a meaningless and absurd band-aid that ignores the roots of evil. But this criticism only appears very briefly in one scene, comes out of nowhere, and is never addressed again. Los Perros has a running time of 94 minutes. And it allows itself – rightfully – many slow-paced moments. But there is then simply not enough time left to address all these issues and cram in all these symbols. A slight weeding out of the script might have helped, but as someone directing her own script Said may have been reluctant to “sacrifice” things she felt to be important when writing them.
The film’s most interesting element, however, is not its atmosphere, nor its choice of topics, nor its symbolism. Its most interesting element is its central character. Mariana is a complex woman and Said has written her in a way that subtly but clearly displays this complexity. On the one hand, Mariana is represented as a strong, independent woman who resents the way her father and her husband treat her and who is rebelling against the authority they have usurped over her. But she is also a woman who has never grown up. It may be her personality, or her sheltered upbringing, but Mariana is a person who avoids facing reality and refuses to take responsibility for her own actions. She also often behaves like a teenager in one way or another, either sullen or rebellious. The interesting thing is that this type of character, the person refusing to grow up, is, at least in its negative manifestation, usually almost exclusively limited to male characters in film and on TV.
Mariana’s complex character also means that her husband’s and her father’s behaviour towards her should probably be seen as more complex than it first appears. Mariana’s rebellion against their authority is not true feminism, not a serious attempt to take responsibility and share rights and duties accordingly. It is a teenager’s rebellion, and we can see on more than one occasion that Mariana is more than happy to go along with her husband’s or her father’s decisions once the sulking is over and she has had her little rebellion. Mariana’s rebellion in these cases is a game she plays, which is all posture and no substance. I am not saying that this is true for all her decisions, but it is undeniably part of her character. And since both her husband and her father know this, it is impossible for them to take her seriously, or to consider whether there is any merit in her views and objections. Not that they would be really inclined to do so anyway, but, as I said, Mariana’s personality requires to view these relationships as more complicated than simply excessive patriarchy.
The actors (including Alfredo Castro, Rafael Spregelburd, and Alejandro Sieveking) are all doing a very good job, but because of the complex nature of Mariana’s personality, and because of the way she is connecting to all the other characters and is driving and shaping these relationships, the main weight of the film rests on the shoulders of lead actress Antonia Zegers. Zegers does an outstanding job portraying the complexity of Mariana’s character, and I presume that in cases of such complexity it is beneficial both for the film and the actor that the writer and director are one and the same person.
As I believe I have made clear in my review, Los Perros has a lot of interesting elements and definitely represents quality filmmaking – all the more remarkable as this is only the director’s second feature film project ever. However, the film also feels too “full” (as I have pointed out above) and unfortunately it does on occasion also feel a bit like a film that likes to think it is cleverer than it actually is.
Nevertheless, this is a good film, and definitely recommended for anyone who believes the subject matter might appeal to them.
Rating: 6.5 to 7.0 out of 10