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Review: Theo Anthony dives deep on symbiotic connections between Baltimore and its rodents in ‘Rat Film’

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Matthew Fouse in the documentary “Rat Film.”
(Memory)

If the sight of the common rat, with its coarse fur and scaly tail, is something you’d rather avoid, Theo Anthony wants you to reconsider.

“Rat Film,” the title of the Baltimore-based filmmaker’s first feature-length documentary isn’t a joke or a sideways allusion — whether coddled or hunted, a helpless newborn or a full-grown haunter of the streets, the snub-nosed rodent is at the center of this electrifying cinematic essay that asks us to reconsider a lot more than a maligned species.

Posing Baltimore-specific questions about 20th-century urban planning and zeroing in on present-day interactions between Homo sapiens and Rattus norvegicus, Anthony explores a city’s destiny.

His Baltimore tour, which intercuts portraits of residents, Google Maps imagery and archival material, is set to the dirge and swirl of Dan Deacon’s superb theremin-infused score. Rats’ role in the creation of that music is glimpsed but goes unexplained. The film’s only narration is the cool, smoky voice-over of Maureen Jones, delivering historical and biological factoids with clinical precision and a tinge of regret, like a soulful Siri from a dystopian near future.

Areas of inquiry include Cold War fears of germ warfare and the midcentury experiments of Johns Hopkins University researcher Curt Richter, who wrote a paper titled “Rats, Man and the Welfare State” and administered field trials of a proprietary poison in a black neighborhood.

The director-cinematographer spends time with rat lovers and their pampered pets. He moves through alleys with inventively equipped hunters of the nocturnal critters, some decidedly more intent than others on not inflicting suffering. He joins a charming philosopher-exterminator on his daily rounds.

There’s a thrilling friction between the smoothly assembled pieces of Anthony’s narrative, and often sparks. Artificial categories start to fracture, and supposed facts are exposed as fictions: how some animals are deemed pests, others pets; some food, others family — and how certain groups of people are officially designated “undesirable populations.”

A seeming detour on crime-scene forensics deepens the mystery, horror and beauty of this singular constellation of synapses — the rare documentary that refuses to connect the dots for us.

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‘Rat Film’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Starts Sunday, Downtown Independent, Los Angeles

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