IFFR 2020 review: Marona’s Fantastic Tale (Anca Damian)

Every pet owner will recognize this: each time one of our furry, four-legged friends cocks their head and gives us a quizzical look we wonder what is going through that little mind. Marona’s Fantastic Tale gives us a look into one of those minds, as it follows the life’s tale of a small dog named, among several names, Marona. Romanian director Anca Damian uses a fascinating mixture of animated styles to bring to the screen the perceptions of the titular heroine, carried by a wonderfully evocative and emotional score by Pablo Pico and some truly inspired and indeed fantastic animation, turning Marona’s Fantastic Tale into a story that will surely win the hearts of animal lovers the world over.

As we start the journey of this little mutt, Marona has just been run over and is dying. Not an uplifting way to begin and setting a bittersweet tone that sustains throughout the film, Marona sees her life flashing by during her final moments as she remembers all her masters whom she unconditionally loved. Shortly after her parents meet, Marona is born as the last pup in a nest of nine, which results in her first name: Neuf (French for ‘nine’). She fondly remembers her mother’s tongue and the warmth and feeling of security that that meant. After a while they are separated and she is placed with her dad. That turns out a failure and Marona soon finds herself alone on the streets of Paris. There she meets her first proper owner, the acrobat Manole. After some gender confusion he gives her her second name in life: Ana. Happy times ensue for the little animal, as she has everything her heart desires: her own small bed to sleep in, from time to time a bone to chew, and a lot of love from her human. When Manole gets the opportunity to work in a circus though, their ways part and Ana is out on the streets again. Manole will not be the only owner to leave our little protagonist before she finally settles in her last family, the family that gives her the name she dies with.

What is striking about Marona’s Fantastic Tale: it is not just about a small dog, but about us humans and the way we treat the animals we take into our homes. Even though Marona is given much love throughout the film, she experiences a lot of sorrow as well, and always at the hands of her owners. To Marona, humans are complicated creatures, and her outlook on them is simplified in a central idea that runs through the story but is verbalized when Manole feels torn between the love for his dog and the lure of the circus. Happiness is being contented with the small things that life brings you: a warm bed, food when you need it, and the companionship of your loved ones. Sadly this is never enough for humans, as they always want more, a concept that confuses Marona.

The film slyly comments on other dubious human behavior. The constant misgendering of Marona, for instance, says something about our male-focused view of the world, and when it comes to pets it is something most people unconsciously do. How often did you greet an unknown dog with “Good boy!” without actually first checking this? The film plays this up for laughs but there is a serious undertone. The most troubling note, however, is in how we sometimes disengage from the ones who give us their unconditional love, our pets. The situations in Marona’s Fantastic Tale are very recognizable, and while not all pets are as sentient as Marona (as far as we know), most animals do recognize abandonment and they do suffer from that. So the next time you leave your best friend home alone and he or she tilts their head at you, think of this film and how it could make them feel. And shower them with love when you return. A bittersweet film, Marona’s Fantastic Tale is as fantastic as its title promises as it goes through the ups and downs of life. That this happens to be the life of a little dog doesn’t mean hearts are warmed any less.