The first scene in Dogman tells you everything you need to know. Its themes are laid out, and you understand what motivates the flawed protagonist. Directed by Matteo Garrone, this dark Italian drama sounds like a crime thriller, but it’s more of a morality play, or a fable. The lessons here are universal, but they are grounded by harsh, specific sense of place. What is ironic about this morality play is that the film may be too intense, uncompromising, or violent for those who should heed its lessons.
Marcello (Marcello Fonte) loves his job. He is a dog groomer, and when we meet him, he is working with an aggressive, large canine that wants to bite his face off. Garrone lingers on this scene, showing how Marcello is able to tame the dog, and soon his work can continue. His rapport with another aggressive beast is not so simple: Marcello’s friend Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce) is a gangster with a quick temper and a violent nature. Imbalance defines their friendship – Simoncino always needs Marcello’s help, and Marcello is eager to please – to the point where Marcello unintentionally turns himself into his community’s pariah.
Garrone films with a grim, matter-of-fact sensibility that adds to the film’s sense of place. It is set in a sleepy seaside community where modernity seemed to pass by long ago. Like last year’s terrific Happy as Lazarro, this film imagines an Italy out of step with the world, to the point where some imagery is post-apocalyptic. This creates a timeless quality, and a sense of isolation: these characters must fend for themselves, so it’s all the more jarring when the authorities step in. Simoncino’s presence is key to this feeling. He is not a bully so much as a brute that is everyone’s cross to bear. There is a remarkable scene where the town’s elderly men seriously discuss murdering him – there is little room for women – and it’s more Lord of the Flies than The Godfather.
Crime is everywhere in Dogman, touching the characters so that they barely fear the law. Our first introduction is Marcello’s first interaction with Simoncino: Marcello is a low-rent drug dealer, and Simoncino is his most eager customer. Seeing Marcello peddle drugs is strange. How could a kind-hearted, soft-spoken man have such a side hustle? The answer is the economic decay around him, and that maybe Marcello is a touch too simple to see Simoncino for who he really is. His denial is a constant thread throughout the film, leading up to a sequence where Marcello participates in a heist, then risks his neck to save a helpless dog. This film does not shy away from brutality to animals, although it is never exploitative. But if you’re the sort who can’t stand seeing animals is distress, this one is not for you.
The tension between forgiveness and retribution are at the heart of this film. Marcello waivers between one extreme or another, and Fonte’s performance is key to this effect. His composure and delivery make seem like the runt of the litter: eager to please, and too soft-spoken to assert himself. The tragedy Dogman is we can see his doomed friendship from the start. There is little subtlety to Pesce’s performance, which part of the point. Everyone can see right through him, knowing he will never change and he’ll always be a prick. Their impasse is the film’s rotten core, and while Garrone offers some resolution, it comes at great cost to his hapless hero.
Garrone is best known for Gomorrah, a dark drama about the mafia that’s utterly drained of glamor. There is no Gordon Willis cinematography, or mournful score by Nino Rota. Instead, the film has hardened men who are too busy to worry about the loss of family or whatever. Dogman also has a revisionist streak to it. It does not see crime in moral terms (it is too realistic and downtrodden for that). The film finds its morality in how the characters use and misunderstand each other. When Marcello stands up for himself, his ongoing, imbalanced emotional labor means his final gesture is too futile to seem significant. Too few films have the courage to see their premise to such an inexorably poignant, pathetic conclusion.