Movie Review: “The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova”

You can tell, almost on sight, that they’re brother and sister — and couldn’t be anything but that.

Sarah (Katherine Fogler) is impatient and getting more so, waiting at this chilly train station in the middle of nowhere, in the gathering gloom.

Her impatience is for brother Aaron (Douglas Nyback) to DO something — ask for directions, transport, to ask if that ancient Russian car with the stout woman sitting in it is a taxi. “Use your POLISH,” Sarah kvetches, betraying a lifetime of practice. As if her brother’s quick “study” of the language will get them anywhere. As if the timid Aaron will actually go and ask ANYbody for help.

Here they are, a couple of not-that-tight siblings, Canadian Jews in “The Old Country” on a fool’s errand for their “bubbeh” (grandmother).

“The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova” is a feather-weight “film festival” comedy layered with menace but buoyed by the built-in whimsy of that most reliable of comic formulas.

Not knowing the land or the language, blithely ignoring Poland’s infamous reputation for Anti-semitism, especially during the Holocaust, they are two Canadian Gefilte fish out of water, strangers in a strange land.

The “menace” here begins with that cabbie (Doroftei Anis), a silent, stoic type who putters along in her car and it’s overwhelming odor of gas (design flaw), stopping for a wedding party, never speaking as they call out directions and ask where they’re going.

“What’s the Polish number for ‘911?'”

Grandma’s old address is hard to pinpoint, and the locals seem sketchy, if not downright hostile.

They’re delivered to “the only (hostel) in town,” where pregnant Karolina (an earthy and radiant Silva Helena Schmidt) interrupts her arguments with a neighbor who she says fathered her child to take them in.

“You are being some Canadians?”

Tuck them into rooms, serve them sausage and potatoes — “Probably not even kosher.” “Who’s kosher?” The next day, here’s a map. Yes, there are many “Birch Streets.” Try the town hall, and good luck!

Director Zack Bernbaum (“And Now for a Word from Our Sponsor”) and screenwriter Michael Whatling immerse our two travelers in a world where even the English speakers are reluctant to reveal that fact right away. Feigning a communication barrier is easier.

The cabbie’s teen son (Stefani Vizireanu) deadpans his solution to every obstinate bureaucrat, property owner or priest who might help them find their bubbeh’s old house, but won’t.

“I will say he (or she) touched me ‘down there.'” Immovable objects are only moved by threats in historically backward places like Dombrova.

The siblings bicker — Sarah’s guileless optimism smashing up against Aaron’s “get on with it” pessimism. Their secrets explain their relationship, just as the town’s secrets get in the way of their quest.

There’s a light dose of “Everything is Illuminated” in “Dancing Dogs,” the North American Jewish outsiders returning to a place their family was chased out of and finding screwballs, petty corruption and lethargy, but also more charm than they have any reason to expect, considering. Simple houses, many of them hovels, are all the place ever could boast of — and an ancient synagogue and seen-it-all rabbi, and an equally ancient church where the priest (Adrian Matioc) isn’t exactly Mr. Popularity.

Not much happens here, even when “the mob” emerges and a firearm comes out. The moral of the story is obvious but sweet. And eventually, we get a dose of why this fish-out-of-water tale is thus-titled.

These “Dancing Dogs” get by on recognizable characters and stereotypes that even those stereotyped embrace when it suits their purposes, especially the “Rocky & Bullwinkle” accents.

“Always ending what starting” is a motto even Boris and Natasha would endorse.

MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, alcohol, sexual situations

Cast:Katherine Fogler, Douglas Nyback, Doroftei Anis, Silva Helena Schmidt, Stefan Vizireanu, Adrian Matioc

Credits: Directed by Zack Bernbaum, script by Michael Whatling. A Film Movement+ release.

Running time: 1:42

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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