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Film: Barren Lives (Vidas Secas)
Director: Nelson Pereira dos Santos
Performers: Baleia, Átila Iório, Orlando Macedo, Maria Ribeiro, Jofre Soares
Breed featured: Brazilian native dog
Production Information: Luiz Carlos Barreto Produções Cinematográficas/Sino Filmes, 1963 (Brazil)

As described by the title, this is an arid, bleakly rendered film full of desperation and deprivation. One beautiful little dog, Baleia, provides much needed glimpses of hope throughout the film. She is a loved family member — traveling with, sleeping amongst, hunting for and working alongside her migrant family. But in the end, even she is unable to survive the harsh conditions of poverty…

I have no idea what breed she is… or what one might call a Brazilian native dog. She looks like a small Podenco type to me, and even a bit Basenji-like at times, with the lean figure, high tuck, long skinny muzzle and exaggerated, alert ears of the sighthound/pariah dog look that I favor. According to an accompanying short film on the DVD extras, she was known as “Piaba” and spotted at a local market by the film crew. They bought her off a vendor who later admitted that he didn’t even own the dog — she had just been a happy lingerer until her life was forever changed by starring in this film.

Warning: Spoilers in slideshow and text beneath the cut!

An official entry at Cannes in 1964, Vidas Secas rocked international audiences and helped to bring so-called Cinema Novo, or the “new” cinema of Brazil, to global acclaim. It is interesting to me how the aesthetics of realism engulfed and exceeded this film primarily through the figure of the animal, as viewers found the depiction of Baleia’s death so convincing and intolerable, a smear campaign was launched to decry its cruelty, overshadowing even the plight of the humans in the fictional narrative. “Killing this beautiful dog — the family deserves what happens to them,” sneered one critic.

Implicit in this charge is that a “primitive” cinema from an underdeveloped nation can do realism, but not movie magic. In truth, the most basic makeup effects were employed for this scene — ketchup mixed with sand, smeared on the dog’s hindquarters, and a bit of nylon tied to her foot to simulate her frantic scurrying movements after being shot. However, the audiences did not grant the filmmakers the sophistication to fake death, to act compassionately when dispensing with extraneous life, as is the logic of poverty carried through the story. in a sense, this bias has long been the burden of visual realism, where the death of cinematic animals has enjoyed more ambivalent permission for public exhibition in ways that “real” human deaths never have.

There was such a huge public outcry that midway through the festival, it became necessary for director dos Santos to send for Baleia to prove to French alarmists that all was well. Believing that such street dogs must be a dime a dozen and easy to replace with a photographic decoy, audiences demanded to see Baleia in the flesh — or fur, as it were. And thus it was that Brazil’s most famous street dog earned herself a trip from the director’s home in Rio, where she had happily retired after wrap, all the way to France.

Abundant news clippings demonstrate what a sensation this little dog caused. I love the juxtaposition of Baleia appearing opposite Sophia Loren in this celebrity report:

They nicknamed Baleia “The Grace Kelly of Barren Lives,” after all, which is as awkward a personification as the corny “talking animal” mode of narration adopted in the featurette. But it was a necessary supplement to counterbalance one of the most truly heartbreaking dog movies I’ve seen in a long time. Though this film is currently streaming on Netflix, I recommend picking up the DVD just for the extra that explains what happened to Baleia (and the less fortunate parrot at the beginning of the film). We seldom get the luxury of knowing the “full” story of a cinematic canine’s life after stardom. Unfortunately, the story still ends on a tragic note — Baleia died 10 years afterward, accidentally poisoned by ingesting rat bait. Nevertheless, we are reminded that the lives of all actors, human and animal alike, can be accounted for beyond the limited runtime of any single film.

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