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Tribeca Review: “The Dog Thief”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 8th, 2024

The Dog Thief (Vinko Tomičić Salinas, 2024) 4 out of 5 stars

A quiet, unpredictable tale about an orphaned teenager looking for a father figure, Chilean writer/director Vinko Tomičić Salinas’ The Dog Thief sets up a fraught situation that it refuses to completely resolve, as homage perhaps to the Italian Neorealist tropes so clearly references in his title. While its ultimate open-ended conclusion may frustrate some, the scenes that lead us there are finely realized. And though the titular canine at the center of the drama is a mere McGuffin to launch the plot, he still proves vital to our engagement as we wonder if the worst could happen.

The real trauma is of the human variety. Set in Bolivia’s administrative capital of La Paz—beautifully photographed in stunning wide shots, often featuring the city’s airborne cable cars—the movie centers on Martin (first-time actor Franklin Aro), an orphaned teenage shoeshiner (shades of Vittorio De Sica’s 1946 Shoeshine)  living in a tenuous foster situation. Behind in school, he is mercilessly mocked by his better-off classmates, especially when they catch him on the job (the shoe shiners wear ski masks to avoid exactly this kind of discrimination).

l-r: Alfred Castro and Franklin Aro in THE DOG THIEF. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

One of the places where he takes on other odd jobs is a tailor’s shop, run by Señor Novoa (Alfred Castro, El Conde), an aging, childless bachelor whose primary companion is Astor, a deeply loved German shepherd. Hoping to earn some much-needed cash, Martin concocts a scheme with a friend to kidnap Astor for ransom. All goes according to plan, until Martin’s own feelings get in the way.

There’s backstory here, since Martin’s mother used to work for Sr. Novoa, and thanks to rumors passed on to Martin via Gladys (María Luque), the housekeeper who has taken him in (who once knew said mother), Martin believes that the tailor could be his father. As he spends time with the older man, putting up reward posters and helping out in assorted ways, they begin to develop a bond, filling a deep void in the boy’s soul. It’s clear he is afraid that these moments will vanish once Astor is returned.

Franklin Aro in THE DOG THIEF. Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival.

The issue of race further complicates the narrative, since Martin is indigenous and Sr. Novoa of European origin. In one disturbing scene, the two are asked to leave a private club. The manager doesn’t specify why beyond the fact that the boy is the problem. So many societal pressures weigh heavily on Martin, it’s a wonder he is ultimately as gentle as he turns out to be.

Raising the stakes even more, Gladys has grown weary of managing the responsibility of watching over Martin, and as a result has restarted the adoption process for him to leave her care. The future is more uncertain than ever. But the question remains, to return the dog or keep on bonding with Sr. Novoa?

Franklin Aro in THE DOG THIEF @Luxbox Films

Martin finally makes a choice, and it is the right one, but it potentially leaves him worse off than before. Or does it? Tomičić Salinas keeps us guessing as to final outcomes, though with a hint or two about what may happen. The truth is that life is rarely easy for the disenfranchised and in this tender, well-shot examination of social inequities, we appreciate the nuances of behavior on display, and the underlying compassion that prevails.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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