the wild dogs (2002)


director: thom fitzgerald

thom fitzgerald, alberta watson, mihai calota

Thom Fitzgerald, in calling his film The Wild Dogs, is hardly guilty of subtlety, inasmuch as dogs - the metaphor of dogs, the constant presence of dogs, the persistent comparison of human beings to dogs - are really the essence of what his film is about.

A pornographer, played by Fitzgerald, arrives in Bucharest to find models. The decrepit state of the country’s economy after communism’s fall has left the orphanages full, and the streets full of beggars and stray dogs. Fitzgerald ingratiates himself with a seedy Canadian diplomat whose lonely wife (Alberta Watson) haunts the local orphanages, while his daughter has grown a bit too worldly in a city where anything can be had for a price - except, of course, the dogs and babies that no one wants.

The family’s servant is married to Bogdan (Mihai Calota), a dog-catcher whose lack of enthusiasm for the ongoing cull of the city’s population of strays is going to cost him his job. All three of them are moved by Bucharest’s pageant of misery to try and intervene, despite the apparently endless ranks of deserving recipients for their charity.

The pornographer blackmails the diplomat in order to get a passport for a young beggar whose legs, broken as a child, force him to walk on all fours. The diplomat’s wife adopts a legless boy who rolls around on a roller skate, while the dog-catcher turns an abandoned bathhouse into a clandestine home for stray dogs.

All the while, Fitzgerald cuts from the city’s feral dogs to their human counterparts, as they fight, have sex, and victimize each other, hammering his point home with an jabbing relentlessness. In interviews, he’s tried to disguise an heartfelt plea for help with flippancy, but there’s no mistaking the nightmare of empathy that he depicts in The Wild Dogs - a place with no shortage of victims, and no hope of helping even a fraction of them.

The test of any viewer’s compassion will probably come with a scene were a puppy, almost saved by the forlorn dog-catcher, is put to sleep in front of the camera, while his wife takes their baby to an orphanage as soon as she knows that he’s lost his job, and any hope of supporting them.

Which image - the dying dog or the abandoned infant - will tug at your heartstrings more? Fitzgerald’s film certainly lacks the dispassionate tone that’s supposed to mark “good” art, but this glaring challenge to sentiment and sympathy transcends the sprawling storyline and nudging bathos that comes before and after.