Juan Villegas is an unemployed fifty-two-year-old in Patagonia who tries to scrape a living selling knives with hand-carved handles he makes himself. Unfortunately nobody wants to buy them at the prices he sells them, as they don't care about the handles as long as the blade is sharp, so yet again Juan has to return home defeated to his daughter's house where he lives with her family, his wife having left him twenty years before. Not even the employment office offers much hope, so it's looking bleak for Juan... until something walks into his life on four paws.
Heading a cast of non-professionals in writer and director Carlos Sorin's gentle drama was Juan Villegas, and a professional could not have done a better job of bringing the character he plays, who he shares his name with, to life. There's an apologetic, unassuming air about him that perfectly suits a man who life has dealt a poor hand, the half smile that plays around his features speaking of optimism that has been dashed, but is the only thing he has to hang onto to keep him going. We know from the start that the knives aren't going to sell, so what can he do instead?
Sorin makes us wait to find out, and spends a lot of time in dealing with the quiet humiliations that Juan suffers. He is looking for work as a mechanic, but even though he has two decades' experience as a garage attendant he is repeatedly turned down. One day he is driving along a country road when he spots a woman having trouble with her car; ever the gentleman he stops to help and observes that she needs a soldering iron to fix the engine, something she has - but several kilometres away at her home. Reasoning he has nothing better to do, he attaches her car to his van and tows it there.
When they arrive, he fixes the engine and goes in for a cup of coffee, hearing the story of the woman and her widowed mother. The deceased father always had projects on the go, and one of them he never had the chance to see completed was to run a kennel. In fact, how about Juan takes the only dog he had bought as a reward? It's a prize specimen after all. Juan doesn't know how to say no, leading to sweet scenes of him driving home with the Argentine Dogo in the passenger seat, then unsure of how to coax the animal out of the van when he gets back.
Although the film resists cheap sentiment, there's a lot that's touching about it and Juan and the dog, called Bombón (although he thinks it is called Lechien, which is actually the name of the kennel it hailed from) make for an appealing screen couple. They never seem entirely comfortable in each other's company - the dog even bites Juan at one point - which adds to the idiosyncratic charm. When Juan realises he might have a champion hound on his hands, he hooks up with handler Walter (Walter Donado), a rotund and enthusiastic, but possibly not wholly trustworthy chap who nevertheless gets Bombón's paw in the dog show door - cue Rocky-style training montage. With a feelgood ending that is highly unusual but oddly fitting, this is a slight but charming work, striking a note of hope in a previously dead end life that even cat lovers will warm to. Music by Nicolás Sorin.