April 16, 2018  (Web Review)

Rat Film

(2017) 82 min. DVD: $99.95: public libraries; $350: colleges & universities. The Cinema Guild (www.cinemaguild.com). PPR. Closed captioned. ISBN: 0-7815-1566-1.

Reviewer rating: 2.5/4

Filmmaker Theo Anthony’s film is a peculiar mix of sardonic social commentary and “mondo” documentary centering on racially segregated Baltimore. In this city that helped develop rat-poisoning techniques, Johns Hopkins biologist Curt Richter (aka “the Pied Piper of Baltimore”) used rats in a variety of medical and psychological experiments. In the meantime, Baltimore’s city planners undertook urban-planning programs that led to “white flight” and resulted in heavily poor and black communities (infested with rats, naturally). Viewers meet urban rat-hunters and exterminators, reptile owners who feed their snakes with baby rats, and even rat fanciers. The Norwegian brown rat is praised as possibly the animal most beneficial to mankind, given its role in research. Still, some viewers may cringe at the animal-abuse subtext (more implied than shown graphically), or the seeming comparison of rats to Baltimore’s disenfranchised African Americans (who loathe rats as much as anyone else). And then there are some odd narrative detours, such as early CSI-investigation dollhouse “crime scenes”—eerie dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee for Harvard in the 1940s that are now the property of the Maryland Medical Examiner. Still, this strange documentary should be considered a strong optional purchase. Aud: C, P. (C. Cassady)