Mondocane. Credit: Kino Lorber Credit: Kino Lorber

If we must have action movies — and surely we must — may they all be as splendid as Mondocane (Dogworld, opening May 20 at Landmark’s Albany Twin). The first feature-length film from writer-director Alessandro Celli, Mondocane deftly intertwines a dramatic coming-of-age story with a Dickensian tale of a dystopian near future that looks all too real.

Cristian (Giuliano Soprano) and Pietro (Dennis Protopapa) are 13-year-old best friends living aboard an abandoned fishing boat on the shores of ‘New Taranto,’ a semi-fictional city based — judging from the maps we’re shown — on the real Italian port city of Taranto. Their only ‘family’ is Lightning (Pinuccio Sinisi), the boat’s owner and the boys’ reluctant, grumpy, and abusive foster father.

When the boys look west each day, they’re greeted by a stunning bay view (credit to Giuseppe Maio for his handsome cinematography), but the view looking inland is a decidedly grimmer one. In addition to some off-limits gated communities, New Taranto consists largely of smoke-belching factories and abandoned buildings; one of those buildings, a former cancer hospital, has been repurposed as the headquarters for a gang of adolescent criminals known as The Ants.

Tired of living with the deeply unpleasant Lightning, the boys aspire to join the Anthood but must first pass a test assigned to them by adult gang overlord Hothead (the magnificently mustachioed Alessandro Borghi): to wit, burning down the titular pet shop in one of the city’s nicer neighborhoods. Mission duly accomplished, the lads — promptly rechristened Dogworld and Pisspants by Hothead — leave the fishing boat behind for a life of crime.

I don’t know if Celli intentionally references Charles Dickens’ ‘Oliver Twist’ in Mondocane, but there are startling parallels regardless. Trained in the criminal arts by elder statesman Hothead with the assistance of his Bill Sykes-like sidekick Quickgun — and mothered by a female character not entirely dissimilar from ‘Twist’s’ tragic heroine Nancy — the Ants torment the city’s upscale residents while inept local police vainly try to chase them down. One gang member is even named Dodger.

Allusions to classic literature aside, Mondocane comes as close to the art-house as possible without ever tipping into pretension or profundity. And though the film may remind some viewers of ’80s’ bleak future’ schlock like The New Barbarians, After the Fall of New York, and even Walter Hill’s The Warriors, it imagines a world that looks very much like the one we live in, albeit one that’s ever so slightly worse: a place of deep inequality, horrific pollution, and broken families. While the aforementioned films dressed up their futurism in outrageous cyberpunk trappings, this one looks like it could be taking place the day after tomorrow.

If you’re wondering, Celli’s Mondocane doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi’s 1963 documentary Mondo Cane. That film became a surprise international success, kicked off a trend of similar mondo movies, and spawned ‘More,’ an Oscar-nominated top 10 hit composed by Riz Ortolani. It’s worth seeing, too, but if you only have time in your life for one ‘dog’s world,’ make it this one.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...