Venice 2022 review: Wolf and Dog (Cláudia Varejão)

“It is a beautiful film filled to the brim with stunning imagery and an abundance of heartfulness, which works in conjunction with the immense artistry to create something truly special.”

“The geography of an island is the metaphor for what is experienced inside: identities surrounded by infinite possibilities that only the fortunate dare reach – but fortune is a quality that dwells within each one of us.”

These are just a few words that are part of a brief prologue, but which function as not only our entry point into one of the year’s most striking films, but as one of the several fascinating details that set the tone and establish the story central to Wolf and Dog (Lobo e Cão). This insightful and powerful drama written and directed by Cláudia Varejão tells the story of two young people who have spent their entire lives in one place in the Açores region of Portugal, the collection of islands that are considered some of the most beautiful in the world, and who begin to question their identity as they encounter glimpses of the outside world gradually being brought onto São Miguel by visitors to the island. A series of stunningly handsome tableaux punctuated by a strong sense of individuality and complexity, Wolf and Dog is a monumental work; a film that may not be immediately comprehensible to the viewer but gradually unveils numerous fascinating qualities that make it a staggering and deeply moving work. Wolf and Dog is a metaphysical journey that questions traditions through the story of two young individuals discovering their queerness against the backdrop of long-standing traditions that have fuelled the culture of their lovely but stagnant island, a proverbial tug-of-war between adhering to conventions or going in search of their own identity. Whether venturing into the rural portions of the island where the conservative values are more saturated or remaining in the port-side village that is gradually opening itself up to a broader range of perspectives, the protagonists find themselves on a voyage of self-discovery, one that reveals as much about them as it does about their island and the world that exists beyond its shores.

As tempting as it would be to simply sit and luxuriate in the Atlantic paradise that the director chooses as the location for this stunning film, we immediately find that there is far more to the picturesque landscapes than initially meets the eye. Wolf and Dog is a profoundly queer film in both form and content. We are confronted by two people who are, as the quote at the start of this review implies, bound to endure an internal struggle between living authentically and adhering to the status quo, a challenge that many face when they don’t fit into preconceived standards. This story follows them as they undergo the process of trying to find their identity in a world ruled by traditions, and Varejão works to carefully craft a film that stands in fierce opposition to the dominance of heteronormativity within many cultures, showing very little sympathy for the idea that cultural standards have to dictate what is considered acceptable. Varejão made use of a cast of non-professional actors, many of whom identify as queer, bringing to the story a sense of gravitas and authenticity that propels the film. Amongst this ensemble are the two leads, Ana Cabral and Ruben Pimenta, who are absolute revelations, their performances forming the cornerstone of this extraordinary film. The director blends their identities as young queer natives of São Miguel with her own narrative, creating a poetic collision of reality and fiction that is beautifully represented throughout the film.

The theme of the conflict between tradition and modernity is essentially embedded in nearly any work that looks at queerness from the perspective of cultural standards, especially when set within a group that veers towards being more conservative. Wolf and Dog is steeped in the idea of trying to reconcile religious practice with the desire to realize one’s individuality, often going against the very principles in which the protagonists were raised. What makes Varejão’s approach so different is that she is not focused on dismantling the traditions altogether – in fact, a large portion of this film is spent gazing in admiration at the religious practices that have been passed down through the generations of the island’s history. Instead, the director is aiming to ask a provocative question – is it possible to live a life that entails elements of both modernity and tradition? Wolf and Dog suggests that they are not mutually exclusive, and while it does show umbrage towards the closed-minded perceptions of those blinded by religious belief, the film is not aggressively against these traditions. Rather, it promotes the importance of redefining them to encompass a broader spectrum of identities, as evident in the gorgeous scenes in which queerness is on full display, whether in the neon-soaked party scenes or the more intimate moments in which these characters explore their identity and burgeoning desires.

Narratively, Wolf and Dog is a powerful film – but this is only half of what makes it such an intriguing work of art. The director puts in a concerted effort to create something that is as visually appealing as it is interesting. The style of the film is quite unlike anything produced in Lusophone cinema today – while most contemporary Portuguese films tend towards realism, Varejão’s is far more modern, with the oscillation between visual landscapes being part of the film’s incredibly diverse and unpredictable nature. The story is centred on two people and their friends who are dwelling in the ambiguous space between adolescence and adulthood, enjoying the freedom of being mature enough to see the realities of the world, but too young to fully take responsibility for changing it. Wolf and Dog is gleefully playful but still filled with a meaningful depth, one that extends far beyond just a mindless demonstration of the folly of youth. This is particularly evident through the movement between dreamlike imagery and a more raw, visceral depiction of the traditions that define the culture, the queerness being fundamental to the director’s attempts to look beneath the veneer of tradition and to celebrate identity in a space that does not always facilitate a more diverse range of perspectives.

Rooted in a kind of magical realism that is steadily growing in contemporary arthouse cinema, the film is driven by atmosphere as much as by plot, which amounts to a vivid and detailed portrayal of a vibrant culture through the eyes of two people who are simultaneously forced into its practices and rejected from it by virtue of their identity. The gritty, working-class malaise combined with the abstract visual poetry culminates in an unorthodox but absorbing coming-of-age drama, one that seeks to transcend conventional portrayals of reality by redefining masculinity and femininity as far more than just the standards set down by previous generations. Wolf and Dog is a film that is in perpetual motion, with many moving parts on both a narrative and artistic level – and this ultimately speaks to its general message, which is about shifting perceptions and changing the way we interact with culture. It is a beautiful film filled to the brim with stunning imagery and an abundance of heartfulness, which works in conjunction with the immense artistry to create something truly special.

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