Portuguese documentarian Claudia Varejao makes her fictional debut with the impressionistic Wolf and Dog, zooming in on the island of São Miguel in the Azores archipelago. A slice of queer life blooms within the traditional insularity of a Portuguese-speaking community, and under the cloak of Catholic heritage. It is a coming-of-age tale of sorts, but Varejão casts her net wider than that. Working with non-professional actors, the director extrapolates her topic in order to explore the anthropological and sensorial aspects of the island, a place that seems calcified in a mist-covered timezone, despite some modern signifiers pitching it in the present.
Ana (Ana Cabral), a curly haired, sultry teenager, is the connecting thread of the film. She lives with her mother, brothers and hangs out with her friend Luis (Ruben Pimenta) and other kids whose forming identities would appear to be at odds with the traditional island community. But nothing is as black and white as it seems. There are plenty of hues and tones, as revealed by the lush cinematography. Ana is often seen on her delivery motorbike as she makes her way to the dockyard, where her brother works, in order to deliver fruits and vegetables to cruise ships. These vessels loom large as a link to the world and its possibilities.
Luis is a very contemporary character, a gender-fluid teenager who wears makeup to school and is encouraged by his mother to be himself, despite the disapproving and, at one point, aggressive stance taken by his father. Ana, on the other hand, has her moments of friction with her mother, who has her own personal struggles and problems with Ana’s brother who seems to be straying too far into not-so-licit fun.
A gay bar with drag acts works as a site of freedom and escape from the humdrum routine of the soporific island, where it is possible to connect, support each other and have fun. Up to a point, Ana seems more of an ally than queer herself, but that starts to change when Chloe (Cristiana Branquinho) arrives on the island and a sexual chemistry starts to develop between them, culminating in a beautifully early-morning scene by a lake.
Luis is the queer totem of the film. As he pilgrimages along the island with a group of men as part of a local tradition, he gets a snarky comment regarding his gender identity from a man who was hosting the group in his home. There is also a brief bullying scene at school, and the scene in which his father loses it after seeing his son wearing make-up during a religious procession. This sequence is one of the highlights of the film, showing drag queens and churchgoers walking together, suggesting that the islanders are more tolerant than one would expect, all things considered.
So gradually we put the kaleidoscope together as we see the main characters finding their way in an open-ended sort of way because this is how life is. What is missing in the film is a certain gelling together of otherwise beautiful moments. The director included some scenes that are interesting but come across as self-contained and random. Besides, there are moments of excessive earnestness, such as when a drag queen says ‘binary is a prison’. The film may have lived up more powerfully to its promise had it embraced more integrally its cosy melancholy.
Overall, Varejão, who is best known for her documentaries such as Amor Fati an Ama-San, succeeds in creating a slow-burn, poetic piece about sexuality and the universal need, particularly for queer kids, to stake out a place in the world while dealing with the paradoxes and contradictions of social existence.
Wolf and Dog premieres at BFI Flare, which takes place between March 15th and 26th.