Boy-and-his-dog films usually tug on the heart with puppyish persistence, but there’s little easy sympathy to be found in Turkish director Kaan Mujdeci’s tough, imposing debut feature “Sivas” — and not many cuddly mutts or moppets either. Painting an even more severe picture of the Anatolian steppes than the recent works of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, this sparse story of an 11-year-old problem child and the brawny fighter dog he adopts is distinguished by its muscular technical brio and rich, integral sense of place. As storytelling, however, it’s less rewarding, taking rather too long to get into gear and abruptly ending at its most critical point of conflict. A bold selection for the Venice competish — not just because of its untested helmer, but its disquietingly neutral perspective on illegal dog fighting — this aggressive, auspicious item reps a tough sell internationally, but could gain traction along the festival circuit.
Auds who stick through the closing credits of “Sivas” will be more than a little relieved to see the standard “no animals were harmed” disclaimer, though it still feels like cold comfort after a film that doesn’t offer much of a redemptive arc to man or beast. Nor will it appease viewers who might expect the film to take a more emphatically cautionary stance against the Turkish culture of dog fighting — more actively vilified in Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo’s “White God” at this year’s Cannes fest. A few catcalls (or dogcalls, perhaps) of protest at the end of the film’s first press screening on the Lido perhaps augur further controversy down the line, though they’re also indicative of how former docmaker Mujdeci’s unflinching observational approach can get under the skin.
Though the film isn’t necessarily presented through the eyes of preteen protagonist Aslan (thornily charismatic Dogan Izci, one of many nonpro finds in the ensemble), it mostly sides with him, with the adult characters all comparatively vague figures of oppression. Not that Aslan (which, as any Narnia-versed viewers will recognize, means “lion” in a range of Turkic tongues) is all that readable himself. A foulmouthed junior hard case given to tantrums of alarming intensity over any perceived slight, his volatile behavioral issues appear to be the production of longstanding parental neglect or exhaustion. His adult brother Sahin (Ozan Celik) humors him slightly more, though their relationship isn’t an especially affectionate one.
If nothing else, Aslan’s rough upbringing has at least given him a healthy ego: He regards himself as a prince, and is profoundly annoyed when his school doesn’t cast him accordingly in their production of “Snow White.” His gauche attempts at wooing chosen princess Ayse (Ezgi Ergin) mark the film’s only attempt at cuteness; the scenes succeed, but sit oddly with the surrounding desolation, while Izci hasn’t been overly encouraged toward likability throughout. Stony skies and flat, oatmeal-colored expanses of agricultural scrub, robustly photographed by Armin Dierolf and Martin Hogsnes Solvang, mark his unpromising princely domain; the film’s first third is largely given over to the mood-dictating textures of this terrain and the attendant social geography of Aslan’s village.
With Mujdeci a little over-enamored of his evocative scene-setting, thirty minutes pass before Aslan and the eponymous pooch — a hulking Kangal sheepdog practically large enough for the boy to ride like a horse — finally meet after a particularly brutal dogfight. The defeated Sivas is left for dead by his owner; Aslan persuades Sahin to let him take the bloodied animal home. What develops isn’t the touching human-canine bond one might expect, as Aslan principally uses the wary Sivas as a status symbol with which to impress his peers, even going so far as to organize an amateur battle with another boy’s dog. (At one point, the kid pores over vintage Lassie images on a cardboard Viewmaster, as if to underline just how far we are from such sentimentality.)
It’s only when Sahin and others enter Sivas into a regional dog-fighting contest — a sweaty-palmed overnight sequence realized with tense sensory specificity by Mujdeci, editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis and the film’s fine-turned sound team — that Aslan begins to have doubts about the enterprise. His elders counter that fighting is the dog’s instinctive calling. It’s uncertain whether the boy accepts this explanation or not, and the filmmaking does little to intervene, ending sharply after what feels like a second act. Mujdeci has scant interest in making an issue film; instead, “Sivas” is concerned with the ways in which this violent practice unites and defines the region’s menfolk, their duelling dogs serving as surrogate vessels for their own fractious, sometimes abusive masculinity. While not stinting on the horrors of the tradition, the helmer maintains a calm, scrutinous documentarian’s eye throughout.
All techs are impressive, but Dierolf and Hogsnes’ aforementioned widescreen lensing is the pic’s trump card, alternating between expansive, unprettified landscape shots and tight, agitated close-ups reflective of the subtler domestic discord in Aslan’s household. The film’s studied framing isn’t overly instructive, but does suggest the limitations of the protagonist’s dog’s-life worldview.