Inspired by a true tale, this thoughtful Italian crime drama follows a dog groomer's tussles with the Neapolitan underworld.
Above a modest store in a crumbling seaside suburb of Naples, a neon-lit sign bears the word 'Dogman'. In a place that's unshakeably grey in both its look and its mood, it's the shiniest thing in sight. The term refers to Marcello (Marcello Fonte), who makes a living grooming neighbourhood pooches, but it's fitting for reasons beyond those instantly apparent. Spending his days doting over dogs, the small-statured, mild-mannered Italian is the leader of the pack, although only among his faithful four-legged friends. Whenever hulking thug Simone (Edoardo Pesce) barges through his door — usually sniffing out cocaine, and never willing to leave until he's found his fix — Marcello dutifully acquiesces to the human equivalent of a growling pit bull.
Returning to the lives of crime that have served much of his filmography so well — acclaimed 2008 mob movie Gomorrah, most notably — writer-director Matteo Garrone leans into the obvious in Dogman. This isn't a blatant or overstated film, however it doesn't shy away from comparing the behaviour of men with that of dogs. One kindly and subservient, the other snarling and vicious, Marcello and Simone adhere as much to the animal kingdom's laws as they do to man's. In Simone's case, the ex-boxer's primal need for instant gratification trumps everything else, be it loyalty, camaraderie, or an awareness of right or wrong. Of course, this is Marcello's story, and so it becomes a tale about aiming to please, bouncing back from mistreatment and learning when to bare one's teeth. The pint-sized underdog has clearly learnt more than a thing or two from his constant canine companions.
Garrone starts charting Marcello's plight when his life couldn't be more routine. He works, sharing many a smile with many a mutt. He relishes the time he's given with his adoring daughter (Alida Baldari Calabria), dreaming of taking her far away for a fantasy getaway. And, as well as supplying Simone with drugs, he follows him through bars and on smash-and-grab jobs. While Marcello doesn't have much and he's visibly lonely, he's content to make do with the status quo — he's a good lapdog to his hefty pal, and he's proud about being well-liked by the community. Then, in unrelenting alpha mode, Simone keeps upping the ante. When Marcello isn't defending his bullying buddy from fed-up local shop-owners or saving him from revenge hits, he's sneaking back into the site of one of their burglaries to rescue a chihuahua that the callous behemoth shoves in a freezer. But as Simone keeps imposing his might, even the inexplicably devoted Marcello has his limits.
It's a dog-eat-dog world in this grim, gritty drama, which takes the broad thrust of its narrative from a 31-year-old true tale. Both the film's insights and its real-life basis may seem standard on paper, and yet that's never the case on-screen, with Dogman as driven by the current state of Italian society — and of the global community — as it is by a headline-grabbing crime. Blending tense thrills with neo-realist observations, Garrone ponders not only the choices of his protagonist, but the world that's placed him in such a position. Indeed, in its own way, this is a movie about nature versus nurture. Anchored by a devastatingly powerful character study, Dogman examines how Marcello's inherent, overtly affable personality is battered and tested by his bleak, trying situation.
Winning the 2018 Cannes Film Festival Best Actor prize for his efforts, Fonte is a whirlwind as the initially perky, increasingly put-upon, eventually perceptive Marcello. He sports the perfect hangdog face for the job, but it's his ability to simultaneously plumb poignant depths, express unfettered earnestness and evoke a sense of lightness that marks his performance as something truly special. Whether Marcello is bathing a huge, howling dog or facing his brutish supposed friend, he's never a one-note character. Dogman is never a one-note movie, either. It offers up a straightforward, even fable-like message, yet it never takes the expected path or lets its bark outshout its bite. Ever the detail-oriented director (and keenly scrutinising every inch of his rundown Neapolitan setting to prove it), Garrone builds a potently layered portrait around two simple truths: even the most well-meaning yap can fall on deaf ears, and a friendly pup is eager to please until it isn't.