The kind of picture that shows, once again, it’s not a big budget but imagination that counts, “A Dog’s Will” is a joyful romp through Brazil’s wild Northeast in the roguish adventures of Jack the Cricket and his pal Chico. Born as a hit stage play by Ariano Suassuna, made into a hit TV miniseries, story was then brought to the screen, where it has become Brazil’s No. 1 all-time box office hit. Passed over by fests, it has been floating around film markets, where buyers with an eye to the offbeat should cast their net.
Told in the form of a nonstop, all-talk comedy, pic is much more sophisticated than it seems at first glance. Story form is clearly based on the historic Spain-originated picaresque tale, an early kind of novel about the adventures of a mischievous, sharp-witted rogue struggling to survive as he drifts through various social classes. Here he is impersonated by Jack the Cricket (the sprightly, good-humored Matheus Nachtergaele), who gets his friend Chico (young straight man Selton Mello) a barely paying job with the rich local baker. They are fed such slop that when they switch plates with the dog, doted on by the baker’s wife, it dies. To get back in the woman’s good graces, Jack tricks the parish priest into saying a funeral mass for the dog in Latin.
Story segues into the next adventure, in which Chico falls for Rosinha, beautiful daughter of the town’s richest man. Jack tricks Rosinha’s two suitors into running away, making the cowardly Chico out to be a hero.
These amusing opening sequences establish the film’s mocking poor-against-the-rich tone, without preparing the viewer for the real fun to come. This begins in a third adventure, in which fierce local bandits attack the town and, after a long discussion, mow down the baker, his wife, the priest, the bishop, and finally Jack. While Chico tearfully prepares to bury him, Jack and the others proceed to the Last Judgment, a deliriously surreal scene of hellfire and chaos. Forcing the devil (a flamboyant Luis Melo) to show his true face, Jack then tricks the Virgin Mary (“Central Station’s” Fernanda Montenegro, here looking like a latter-day Giulietta Masina) into pleading his case before Jesus (who deliberately appears to the assembly as the black Mauricio Goncalves, to test their racism). Great fun, this scene swings merrily between comedy and tears and sums up the film’s humanist philosophy. Yet its truly Christian spirit rings absolutely sincere.
Against the deceptively simple backdrop of the Northeast scrub brush, director Guel Arraes moves his characters with skillful theatricality. The rapid-fire dialogue is matched by rapid-fire cutting. Sa Grama’s score is excellent in creating a mood without sentimentality.