Two preppy Canadians find themselves in a dreary village in Poland in the dead of winter. What are they doing there? Zach Bernbaum answers the question in his quirky Canadian feature film, The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova, which is currently playing online.
Night has fallen in Dombrova, and siblings Sarah and Aaron Cotler (Katherine Fogler and Douglas Nyback) have just disembarked from a train. They’re on a special mission on behalf of their ailing grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Toronto. She has asked them to find her childhood home and unearth the bones of Peter, her pet dog, so she can be buried with them.
It doesn’t seem like a tall order, but to their dismay, it becomes an arduous task.
The taxi driver who picks them up at the station, a stout and morose woman, is monosyllabic. Her abrupt disposition prompts Aaron to claim she’s antisemitic.
She remains inexplicably silent as she drives them to a guest-house. The owner, Karolina (Silva Helena Schmidt), is nice enough, but surprises Sarah and her brother by issuing a warning: “No pissing in the sink.”
At the municipal office, the clerk sitting behind a computer screen is unfriendly and uncommunicative. When he finally speaks, he says he cannot help them find the right address. The mayor, a bluff fellow, appears momentarily, but he, too, is ineffectual.
In exasperation, Aaron blurts out, “This isn’t some fun-family holiday.”
The tension between Sarah, a free spirit who appears unemployed, and Aaron, a civil servant, is palpable. “I can’t remember a time when you stood up for me,” complains Sarah. To which Aaron counters, “Do you know what it’s like to have a relationship with a drunk?”
Karolina leads them to an empty synagogue, or, as she calls it, a “Jewish church.” Surprisingly enough, they meet a rabbi inside. Why he happens to be there is a mystery. “This place was filled on shabbos,” he says sadly, referring to the Jews who once prayed here.
At last they stumble upon their bubbe’s house, but its elderly proprietor, a rough-and-tumble woman named Sokolovsky, abruptly orders them to leave.
They visit the local priest, but he’s of no help either. Then they run into three prostitutes. A huckster, who claims not to be Polish, offers to lead them to Peter’s grave for a price. He takes them to Sokolovsky’s house. After Aaron discloses his grandmother’s maiden name, she spits out the word “Jews” contemptuously, grabs a gun and starts shooting at them.
These disconnected scenes merge into a coherent narrative, and the film moves along at a steady pace, engaging viewers in what sometimes seems like a futile hunt for Peter’s bones. Fogler and Nyback are fine as two fish out of water, but the rest of the cast, an ensemble of Romanian actors, is less than convincing.
The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova has its moments, but it’s not an unforgettable movie.