Director: Gustavo Duc
Writer: Gustavo Duc
Cast: Bono, Bruno Bertoli, Fabio Herrera
Running time: 29mins
Robert Johnson, the US blues singer, famously remarked that humanity can be divided into two groups – some folks take life easy, and some folks take life hard. Similarly, there is another fault line that seems to run through contemporary society. On the one hand, are those folk who believe that having a dog as an animal companion enables them to enjoy a relationship of immutable, unconditional love and respect unencumbered by disagreements over what colour wallpaper to choose or what film to watch. In the other corner, are those of us who think that canine companions are shit machines, which merely serve to prop up the psyches of a bunch of social inadequates. If you fall into the latter category, you might have some problems with The Traveller, an Argentine short narrative film, written and directed by Gustavo Duc. The specific problem you will have is Bono.
Not the shy, retiring, tax efficient, Irish landscape rock musician and soi disant philanthropist. This Bono is a dog – a photogenic male red retriever cross who is a central character in the film and who really does steal the show. Engagingly, Bono is awarded a namecheck in the final credits but given the power of his performance, I felt this was somewhat of a cop-out, it would have been more fitting to have given him star billing in the opening credits along with the human protagonists.
The Traveller charts the development of a friendship between two Argentinian men set in a small town near to the coastal resort of Mar del Plata. Duc opens with an excellent sequence where Juan, the eponymous traveller played by Bruno Bertoli, is shown out of focus – then comes into focus – in the resolution we see a middle–aged beat with loose clothes, beads, and floppy fedora. Bono runs out to greet him from the gates of a slightly down-at-heel middle class villa and we meet the owner of both house and dog – Fernando, played by Fabio Herrera. In a series of beautifully filmed and tightly scripted scenes, Duc sketches out Juan’s and Fernando’s backstories. Juan is a traveller who has eschewed convention to find freedom and personal fulfilment on the road. Fernando is an office worker and a follower of convention whose life has been ripped apart by the death of his wife in a car crash. In a flash-back scene, we see the role that Bono played in helping keep Fernando together during the anguish of his bereavement. Fernando gives Juan a job as part-time gardener. The two become buddies, watch football on television, and take Bono for a walk on the beach at Mar del Plata. Here, the camera team have fun with drone photography, and we have some spectacular shots of Bono gambolling through the surf – subtly done – the sequence is well edited and does not have the look at this feel that drone footage sometimes has.
The scene where the buddies go to the Arts Centre café by the beach (the waiter welcomes Bono by name) had me scratching my head in cross-cultural confusion. It must be the first time I have heard someone say straight-faced as Fernando remarks – the croissants are iconic. In the intro shot for the scene, I had been repulsed by the huge, rebarbative golden sculpture of a sea lion dwarfing the building. Juan takes a shine to it and Fernando agrees, saying it is by Marta Minujin. Minujin is a big name internationally but this one was not for me, and I usually like Jeff Koons style pop bling. Cultural diffusion can be a complex process – sexy/sexist, ironic/iconic – it is such a fine line.
Duc adroitly weaves into the storyline Juan’s conviction that he has met a special traveller, one who journeys through time and space, and that, indeed he is one himself. We get some pop Erich von Däniken style sermonising about the Pyramids, Nazca, and da Vinci but such is the sincerity of Bertoli’s performance that we can believe in Juan’s belief. Duc establishes Juan as a shaman figure which sets things up nicely for the twist and resolution that ends the film. Trigger warning for dog lovers – something bad happens to Bono but everything is OK.
There are many things to enjoy in The Traveller. Alongside Bono, both Bertoli and Herrera put in powerful performances with a wonderful chemistry to their relationship. The editing by German Lopez and the cinematography by Nicolas Dibbern are well realised throughout. I thought the music by Leandro Ferro was spot on – use of simple electronic piano chords to add some mystery as we are getting to know Juan and to add a ludic quality when Bono is larking about. Ferro also gives us a deliciously poignant guitar theme with female vocals for the beach scene and finale – if your bag is garage or death metal you might have difficulty with it, but it fits the wistful, elegiac mood of The Traveller to perfection.
There were two stand-out scenes which, for me, demonstrated Duc’s ability as a director. Early on in the movie, Juan goes into the kitchen to wash his hands. At this stage, we are not sure of Juan’s bona fides (apologies to Bono), the mood of uncertainty is heightened by the tension in Ferro’s score. Duc is playing on the audience’s anxieties of the threat of the unknown traveller being invited into a bourgeois home. Then Bertoli does something quotidian but extraordinary. He dries his hand on a tea-towel and then hangs it with meticulous care on the cooker – straightening the edges and smoothing any bumps. The question we are being asked is whether the traveller is going through an obsessive compulsive episode or whether the attention to detail is to enable him to somehow fit into the demands of bourgeois life. A challenging and beautiful moment. The second scene is when Juan is doing his von Däniken schtick. Duc has Bertoli filmed in profile when he is in the early stages of his exegesis with the camera panning at various points to reference Fernando’s reaction filmed as a front-on close up of Herrera’s face. As Bertoli is moving to Juan’s conclusion – the link between Einstein and the Three Wise Men would you believe – Duc changes from profile to a searching frontal close up of Bertoli’s face. A simple technique but so effective.
Duc does get a couple of things wrong. There is a host of footage of Juan at work tending Fernando’s garden. The problem is that it is all very desultory. We see Bertoli using a strimmer and a wheelbarrow, but the items are new and the load on the wheelbarrow is all very neatly placed. The scenes have a feel of an add-on, let us pretend we are gardening approach – method acting this is not. There is a faintly ludicrous scene where Fernando brings home some run of the mill violas that he has bought and gives to Juan to plant. We see Juan place them still in their pots on the lawn. Later, Fernando remarks how wonderfully the plants have grown – alluding to Juan’s all-round skills as shaman and gardener. We never see the violas planted out; we simply see Juan gazing toward where we assume them to be – we are not witness to the supposed spectacular actuality of the plants. The filmmakers would have been better advised to go the extra mile here to show us some of the things we are being told about – or not to tell us about them at all.
The other issue I had was with the scene where Fernando is talking to Juan about getting him some more work gardening for a neighbour. The neighbour is a woman, and the two men discuss her appearance in derogatory terms – ugly, could have been good-looking once but now too old. The scene comes across as odd because the feeling and dialogue of the rest of the movie is so benign and empathic. I can only guess that Duc was trying to say – hey these guys are lovely people, but they are still beholden to Argentine machismo. Or, dread thought, the director was laying down a marker – hey the guys are becoming close buddies, but they are heterosexual so don’t look for any erotic charge between them. The scene is short, but it would have been so much better if it had not made the final cut.
Readers may have guessed already which side of the pro-dog/anti-dog divide your reviewer stands. I have gone through the anguish that Duc depicts Fernando experiencing. Unlike Fernando who lost his wife as the scissors of the Fates cut the threat in one, clean cut, I lost my partner to the crab pincers of cancer as they gradually destroyed a human body and took a life. But like Fernando I was fortunate to have, in my case, not one but two dog companions, Vicky and Sedahs, who helped me come to terms with the pain and loss. Vicky went on to be immortalised as one of the dedicatees in Paul Loader’s brilliant insightful essay ‘Mess With My Dog and You Mess With My Mind’ a part of a seminal collection – What Philosophy Can Tell You About Your Dog edited by Steven Hales.
So, there is a bit of canine bias on the part of your reviewer. I might have otherwise gone for a four-star review – due to some of the scratchy production values that I have referred to – but the towering performance from Bono must be worth another half-a-star.
I note that The Traveller has created a buzz on the re-opening festival circuit with the film picking up a fair number of nominations and awards. In light of the movie’s success, it would be fun if the filmmakers were able to commission Minujin to produce a companion piece to the sea lion statue at Mar del Plata – a monumental likeness of Bono gazing thoughtfully out across the ocean would be the dog’s biscuit.