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Review: The Dog Thief


- Chilean filmmaker Vinko Tomičić Salinas makes his solo feature debut with a meditative portrait of a young shoeshiner in the Bolivian capital of La Paz

Review: The Dog Thief
Alfredo Castro (left) and Franklin Aro in The Dog Thief

Eight years after the release of his first feature, The Fumigator (co-directed with Francisco Hevia), Chilean writer-director Vinko Tomičić Salinas brings his solo feature debut, The Dog Thief [+see also:
interview: Vinko Tomičić Salinas
film profile
, to the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival. Also featuring an outcast character of sorts, Tomičic Salinas’ latest endeavour takes us to La Paz, Bolivia, where he paints a portrait of one of the thousands of boys and young men who are lost within the cracks of growing globalised capitalist pressures. Shoeshining became common in the city in the 1980s, when many members of indigenous communities migrated to the urban centre in search of economic opportunities, making a meagre living polishing the shoes of the elite. The Dog Thief recently had its world premiere in the festival’s International Narrative Competition.

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Martín (Franklin Aro) is a 13-year-old orphaned boy making a living as a shoeshiner while sporadically going to school, where he is brutally bullied by his classmates. He is able to live at the house of a wealthy elderly woman named Señora Ambrosia (Ninón Dávalos), as she is taken care of by his late mother’s friend, Gladys (María Luque). His most attentive shoeshine client, Señor Novoa (Alfredo Castro), is an older man who earns his living as a tailor and cares for his prize-winning German Shepherd, Astor, like a son. Martín and his friends scheme to steal Astor in order to prompt Novoa to offer a reward for the return of his dog. However, after becoming a surrogate son in Astor’s absence, Martín must decide whether to claim his dishonest money or continue fostering the kindness and pseudo-parental guidance of Novoa.

Martín is one of the many invisible workers of La Paz, whose shoeshiners cover their faces with ski masks to avoid being discriminated against. Such a moment comes when several of his classmates recognise him and begin to harass him as a “lowly” shoeshiner while he struggles to flee the scene. A scrapyard is his primary playground as he works to make ends meet. Aro carries within him a measured loneliness as Martín, reflected by a muted visage that hardly changes throughout the film. One might dare to ask for more expressiveness, but it also fits the character – his face has been hardened by years of street labour, while those around him are in more privileged positions enabling them to express themselves as they please.

Tomičic Salinas’ script meanders, but never aimlessly – it’s more a snapshot of this moment in Martín’s life than a hero’s journey. DoP Sergio Armstrong shoots La Paz as if it were the most vibrant city in the world, brimming with character. In some ways, it could very well be, with its colourful, peeling walls full of spray-painted street art and its rich variety of architectural styles making up tightly packed houses set in tessellated patterns on a high plateau within the Andes. But in the Bolivian administrative capital, gunshots also puncture and echo through the silence, the sonic elements an effort between sound designer Federico Moreira and composer Wissam Hojeij, with an emphasis on ambient sound that captures the atmosphere of the city. The art direction by Valeria Wilde Monasterios also brings a lovely level of detail to the film world’s minutiae, from Novoa’s tailor shop to the carefully adorned home of Ambrosia.

The Dog Thief is a co-production between Easy Riders Films (France), Movimento Film (Italy), Color Monster (Bolivia), Calamar Cine (Chile), Zafiro Cinema (Mexico) and Aguacero Cine (Ecuador). Its international sales are managed by Luxbox.

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