A timid dog groomer living in a poor suburb sells cocaine on the side and stays out of trouble, while trying to deal with his unstable, violent acquaintance who is a menace to the whole neighbourhood.
A big-hearted but beleaguered dog sitter tries to turn worm in Matteo Garrone’s gimlet-eyed Roman revenger, which won Marcello Fonte the Best Actor award at Cannes.
Dogman opens with every cynophobic’s worst nightmare: a large vicious pit bull barking into the face of the camera. Saliva flies, teeth flash and the urge to run is strong – but not for Marcello (Marcello Fonte). “Sweety”, he croons as the jaws snap inches from him, but gradually – as Marcello cajoles and washes the animal, cooing affection all the time – the dog calms.
A dog sitter, Marcello works from his ‘Dogman’ shop in a neglected Roman suburb which seems to be crumbling into the sea. Gregarious with his neighbours, gentle with his charges, he’s also a loving father to his daughter Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), with whom he enjoys scuba-diving. Like Luciano (Aniello Arena) from Matteo Garrone’s former Cannes-contender Reality(2012), Marcello is a character of the neighbourhood. He’s no angel – he deals some cocaine and Alida’s mother doesn’t give him the time of day – but no one who so good-humouredly shares a plate of pasta with his dog can be truly bad.
But bad things happen to good people throughout Garrone’s work. And the truly bad comes in the form of thug Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a human Rottweiler who terrorises everyone, breaking noses and bullying the local business owners to such an extent they consider calling in ‘some guys’ to take care of him. Simone uses Marcello as a source of free coke and as an unlikely getaway driver. Marcello, for his part, is intimidated but also drawn to the ex-boxer’s aggressive confidence. Maybe, Marcello sees in Simone an untamed animal who just needs patience to be brought to heel.
If so, he’s mistaken. When Simone bullies Marcello into letting him use his shop to break into the gold-buyers next door, suspicion falls on Marcello and, after refusing to snitch on Simone, he is sent to prison. Having served a year, he returns to find Simone as bad as ever and his former friends now shunning him as a rat. To make matters worse, Simone refuses to pay him his share and Marcello begins to brood on revenge.
Following the wild diversion into the fantastic of Tale of Tales (2015), Dogman marks a return to Garrone’s neorealist roots, taking inspiration from an infamous incident which occured in 1988. The more gruesome details of the true story are avoided (Sergio Stivaletti’s Rabbia furiosa – Er canaro promises to tell another version as a horror film later this year). Here, Garrone and fellow screenwriters Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso and Maurizio Braucci present instead a toxic relationship reminiscent of Garrone’s 2002 film The Embalmer. Fonte is superb as the beleaguered little man whose gentle dopiness is no match for the blunt force of his frenemy and the indifference of the society around him.
For Garrone, Italy’s beauty might not be so great as the stupefied glitz of Paolo Sorrentino’s vision but with cinematographer Nicolai Brüel he creates a convincingly grimy and rainy view of the Bel Paese. The barren streets, decaying shops and lurid nightclubs give off a noirish vibe, matching the sense of doomed inevitability as Marcello finally starts to show some teeth. But for Garrone revenge is a fumbled tragedy rather than a power fantasy.
Earlier in the film, Marcello learns of a dog locked in a freezer. At great personal risk, he rescues the dog and slowly revives it in the sink. It is a beautiful moment of quiet unfussy heroism and suggest that though Dogman might well be bleak, it recognises humanity when it sees it.
John Bleasdale, Sight and Sound, 19 May 2019.
‘Dogman’ Review: In Italy, a Man-Eat-Man World
The worlds that the director Matteo Garrone creates onscreen sometimes seem as far out and darkly mysterious as an alternate universe. Best known for “Gomorrah,” a blistering story about a people under siege by the Neapolitan mafia, Garrone looks at an Italy that is dramatically at odds with its touristic image, its charming hill towns and bourgeois niceties. In the satirical “Reality” (2013), a fishmonger loses himself in his desperation to become a reality-TV star, an aspiration that Garrone suggests speaks to Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, where life often appears to imitate scandalous spectacle.
“Dogman,” Garrone’s latest, again takes on Italy and its enduring discontents, this time in a coastal town that appears as if it hasn’t fully recovered — but from what: war, the economy, organized crime, the government? That question lingers each time the camera holds on the story’s principal setting, a depopulated stretch of beach flanked by squat anonymous buildings, many seemingly derelict. In the sandy center are the remains of what looks like an abandoned amusement park, including a swing set and a ride ornamented with a dragon, a proud emblem of better or maybe just busier days.
Not far from the swings and the dragon is a tiny shop with a large “Dogman” sign where Marcello (Marcello Fonte) patiently waits in his smock, ready to serve. Somewhat improbably, this slight, smiling, simple man ekes out a living as a dog groomer. The town may be dramatically unpeopled, but everyone seems to have mutts and the means to keep them coifed. And, as his endearments attest — his favorite is “sweetheart” — Marcello loves his work and his furry clients, his compatriots and his daughter. He has found his place here, and when he sits down to eat at a trattoria, where men garrulously greet each other over heaping plates, it is as if he were nestling into an embrace.
Like the few other pinpricks of light scattered throughout the movie, the trattoria is a vestige of a resilient communal spirit that has survived despite conspicuous neglect and abuse. Something has been gnawing on the bones of this place, and it isn’t long before Garrone introduces a possible suspect, Simone (Edoardo Pesce). A former boxer who still keeps his fists up, Simone is the local bully. He doesn’t seem to have a job beyond an occasional heist; his only apparent interest is brutalizing anyone who gets in his way. For some reason, he tends to gravitate to Marcello, or at least to the snorts of cocaine that the little man eagerly procures for him.
It’s a worrisome relationship — something has got to give — and Garrone teases this volcanic threat for much of the movie. Simone is a brute, a monster with bared teeth. But much like the slavering, ferocious-looking dog that enters barking in the opening shot, and which Marcello gently soothes into submission, Simone seems containable. And for a long while, Marcello manages to keep him and his violence in check. Mostly, he just goes along with Simone’s persistent demands, an acquiescence that shapes the episodic narrative as Marcello unhappily takes the wheel during a robbery, tags along to a dance club and reluctantly joins Simone on a cocaine run.
Garrone likes big, bold, graphically precise images that grab the eye and do the work that’s often done by dialogue in other movies. The snarling dog announces Simone, who in turn embodies an unchecked malignancy. Simone, it’s clear, is terrible. Yet there’s nothing that he does, including beating others to a pulp, that is as horrific as the scene in which Marcello sits with neighborhood men who discuss having Simone assassinated. One has recently been assaulted by him; others soon will be. Seated at their usual trattoria table, the men seem so calm, sober. And as they discuss their problem and a potential remedy, you see how easily rationalized violence turns a group into a mob.
Social realism in a symbolist key, “Dogman” is at times more pleasurable to look at than to experience, because it’s so deterministic and because there’s so little ordinary feeling beyond Marcello’s uncomplicated love for his daughter, neighbors and dogs. Garrone is a virtuoso of pain and terror, which can be overwhelming, despite the flourishes of comedy. He also likes to go loud, and he consistently pushes into hyperbole, as when he comically emphasizes the difference between Marcello’s size and a much larger dog he grooms. The contrast is funny. But what makes the image linger isn’t how it fits into the movie’s controlling metaphor but the everyday gentleness of one creature tending to another.
Manohla Dargis, The New York Times, 11 April 2019.