Straddling the southern bend of the Mapocho River that runs through the northwestern part of Santiago, Chile is the oldest skatepark in the city — Los Reyes. The home away from home to a group of misfit teenage skaters, Parque de Los Reyes is a surprisingly peaceful hideaway of grassy fields and gravel sports lots surrounding the concrete dips and curves of the skate ramps. But among these fixtures, two canines stand out: Fútbol, a lion-esque, matted black mutt, and Chola, a vivacious and vocal chocolate Lab. Codirected by Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff, Los Reyes sets a new standard for dog movies with its languorous, observational approach, allowing audiences to appreciate the distinct beauty and charm of man’s best friend while never anthropomorphizing its subjects, or presenting them in an overly sentimental light.
In an interview with Film Comment Magazine, Perut and Osnovikoff talked about their unexpected decision to shift the focus of their project from the park’s community of troubled skater kids to the pair of resident strays after a year of shooting. Initially envisioned as a more overtly social issue documentary that focuses on the teens as they relate slang-packed stories of class antagonisms and drug addiction, the final film only uses these characters as disembodied voices; their conversations function as the movie’s musical backdrop to the dog days of Fútbol and Chola.
Whether lounging at the edge of a halfpipe or chasing away horse-mounted cops from their kingdom, Fútbol and Chola’s routine existence is captured with patience and attentiveness by cinematographer Pablo Valdéz. High altitude shots overlooking the domain situate the two pups in the context of Santiago’s valley-contained cityscape, two furry figures protruding from the park’s flat expanse like the button insects clinging to the tufts of Fútbol’s unwieldy mane. While the camera keeps a cool distance from the dogs as they space out and find ways to pass the time and cool off in the midst of the dry Chilean summer, Valdéz uses high definition macro to bring us at times uncomfortably close to the subjects. Muzzles and paws resemble Extra-Terrestrial textures, and frayed tennis balls coated in gunk and dirt look nearly existential in their weathered state. Yet when one ratty tennis ball disappears, a new one takes its place, and so on and so forth — mundane recurrences like this and Fútbol’s obsessive habit of picking up rocks and balls and cans and holding them in his mouth, underscore the movie’s interest in the seemingly insignificant, the lazy cycles that comprise a freed existence for animals that know nothing else but that.
The two dogs bask in the shade of a tree-lined avenue, one next to the other. Chola rises and plops down a few feet to the left. Moments later Fútbol saunters over and joins her. Are the two friends? I’m inclined to say yes, on the condition that we stretch out our definition of the word to encompass something beyond the way we as humans understand that relationship. But in a documentary as uncompromising as this, in which the dogs are shown with all their unappealing and often alienating biological propensities (Chola staring at Fútbol as he has his way with an unwilling female stray, for instance), you can’t help but feel there’s something fundamentally unknowable about these creatures.
Of course it’s unavoidable to watch Los Reyes without forging narratives about what the dogs might feel or think at any given moment, and the film is not without its “aaaaw”-inducing moments (think a low shot looking skyward from the bottom of a skate pool as the two peak their heads out over the edge). But in its sober appreciation of Fútbol and Chola, and their remote and unspectacular existence, there is something simultaneously sad and joyous to the movie’s spotlight on their companionship. And it’s precisely this complexity of feeling that makes Los Reyes one of the most rewarding dog movies I’ve seen to this day.
Los Reyes screened at Film Comment Selects and IFF Panama.