You can gauge the goodness of a person by how they treat dogs. This is particularly true for Marcello (Marcello Fonte), who has a great way with our canine friends in the opening scene of Dogman, taming an angry dog with remarkable skill. He is the proud owner of the film’s eponymous dog parlour, and a valuable member of his tight-knit community. He seems like a good man; if only he was in a better place, then maybe he could have a happy life.
Marcello prefers the company of animals to people. Dogs, if well-trained, offer the possibility of unconditional love; people, on the other hand, are far more complicated and harder to bring around. Marcello learns this the hard way when he strays from the straight and narrow of the dog business, leading to a lean thriller that also functions as a rather intriguing character piece. Less sprawling than his masterpiece, Gomorrah, Dogman makes a virtue of brevity and compaction.
With its faded rides and empty storefronts, the town in Dogman evokes both the neorealism of De Sica and the early work of Fellini. Grooming dogs isn’t Marcello’s only way of making money; he also has a side-hustle from selling coke at the back of his shop. One of his regular customers is Simone (Edoardo Pesce), who is generally considered to be a local nuisance, a force of nature who breaks gambling machines when he loses money, punches people in the nose when they annoy him, and never pays anyone back for anything. The general consensus is that someone will deport him to the fish-house eventually, but the question is: who? Meanwhile, Simone keeps roping Marcello into more dangerous and dangerous schemes from which our plucky protagonist cannot find an effective way to extricate himself. Eventually, something’s got to give.
The resultant miserablist drama poses several key questions about the state of man. How much of their actions are the result of circumstance, and how much is of their own free will? Are men really just the same as dogs, where only the strongest survive? This dog theme is stressed by the casting; while Simone is a heavy-built man, resembling a large pit bull, Marcello is more like a small Chihuahua, eager to please. In tight, claustrophobic scenes, Marcello is seen as physically cowering under Simone’s weight, yet still somehow awed by his blunt and brusque manner. This sense of push and pull is what gives Dogman its power — the audience constantly wondering if Marcello has what it takes to stand up to his bully.
Matteo Garrone’s films often depict the petty-gangsterism of Southern Italy, using the genre as a means to comment on the flawed nature of masculinity. Garrone sees how the presence of hard drugs, coupled with the strong belief in omertà (never ratting on your friends), can lead to devastated communities — the obsession with performing like ‘real’ men denying these people the chance of a meaningful life. Dogman is a story is about men, with little interest in women’s lives. They are almost mostly entirely absent, with the only meaningful role being that of Marcello’s daughter. While offering a necessary counterpoint to the hard-edged drama going on between the men, not enough is developed here to make the relationship achieve its desired emotional effect.
The power of the piece rests upon Marcello Fonte’s performance. Blending a sense of passion for what he does, along with a naivety about those around him, his actions always remain believable. If I were to tell you what happens at the end just by itself, you might think Garrone was trying too hard. With Fonte in the lead role, it makes perfect sense.