Dogman opens with a close-up of a snarling pit bull. He’s on a short chain and seems feral and crazed. But in fact, he’s someone’s pet getting a bath in a dingy dog-grooming shop in an equally dingy seaside town. The man scrubbing his back with a janitor’s broom is Marcello, who knows a thing or two about how to handle a savage canine, the kind his rough clientele like to keep.
We’re in low-level mafia country here, full of petty criminals and forgotten people living on the economic fringes of Italy. The dynamic that plays out between Marcello and this dog is an apt metaphor for the film’s central story. Marcello can manage the wildest of beasts, but his tricks only go so far when savagery takes human form.
Marcello is a mild-mannered dweeb and devoted, divorced father who enhances his dog-grooming earnings with small-time coke dealing. His biggest client is Simoncino, a former boxer who terrorizes the town with rampant bullying and violent outbursts. While some in Marcello’s circle talk about ways to permanently eliminate this brut, Marcello considers him a friend—but one he fears. He lets himself be coerced into aiding Simoncino in his petty criminal schemes, like the night he’s an unwitting getaway driver for a villa burglary. When Simoncino’s accomplice boasts that he dealt with a yapping dog by putting him in the freezer, Marcello’s face twists with disgust. (Spoiler alert: He returns to rescue the pooch.)
The demands Simoncino places on Marcello escalate. Eventually, the dogman takes the fall for his thick-necked friend and serves time, but afterwards he learns that his pact with the devil—a bought silence—is meaningless, and his friends have turned against him to boot. Marcello takes shocking action in a bid for both redemption and revenge.
Dogman is the latest feature by Matteo Garrone, one of Italy’s most accomplished directors. His scripts always spring from real-life stories ripped from the headlines, or in the case of his best-known project, Gomorrah (2008), from the pages of Roberto Saviano’s eponymous exposé of the Neapolitan mafia, the camorra. That international best-seller not only named names within the crime syndicate (earning the author death threats), it showed from the inside how the camorra enters the woof and weave of semi-legitimate industries, from haute-fashion sweatshops to hazardous waste disposal.
Dogman’s point of departure was a horrific case of torture and homicide committed by a dog groomer in the 1980s outside of Rome. Like Gomorrah, the film’s naturalism is grounded in real places and real faces. Garrone’s films are shot on wholly on location, and the director has a talent for picking places that embody economic desperation and neglect—forgotten derelict towns that breed a dog-eat-dog mentality. Likewise, his cast mixes local non-actors with professionals. Those weathered faces, body language, and manner of speaking are the real deal. (After Gomorrah’s release, two of the nonprofessional supporting players were arrested for camorra-related crimes. Like I said: the real deal.)
Dogman’s leading duo excel. With his sunken cheeks and slight frame, Marcello Fonte is the physical embodiment of hangdog acquiescence. This theater actor and musician previously had just bit parts in a half-dozen Italian films, plus Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York. This was his first time carrying a film, and his performance as Marcello is haunting. The judges at Cannes clearly thought so, awarding him Best Actor. (They also gave the canine cast a special Palm Dog award.) Edoardo Pesce, who came to the part of Simoncino with a longer filmography, is electrifying in his unpredictableness, like a feral dog who might either ignore you or sink his teeth into your flesh.
For Garrone, Dogman is not simply a story about the loss of innocent and vengeance. It’s about something that concerns us all: “the consequences of the daily choices we make in order to survive,” he says, “of the yesses that we say which bring us to no longer being able to say no, to the difference between who we are and who we believe we are.”