Jacob Richardson | 31/08/2019
A tense and at times overwhelming Italian feature.
Marcello (Marcello Fonte) runs a small, run-down dog grooming business in a coastal Italian town that has undoubtedly seen better days. This town has an otherworldly, almost science-fiction feel, with its decaying infrastructure and abandoned playgrounds. Thriving in this once beautiful place is the thug and bully Simone (Edoardo Pesce), who spends his time terrorising store owners, robbing rich folk, and smashing up slot machines when they take too much of his money. Towering over Marcello, he feels like an unstoppable force of nature.
But eventually his depravity forces some local shopowners to consider trying that very thing; stopping the monster. Sitting at a table, Marcello included, they debate how to kill this man. The conflict for Marcello is that he considers this ambling giant a friend; he feels powerful hanging around with him. Director Matteo Garrone (who made the incredible Gommorah) focuses on the steady decline of this relationship, as Marcello realises that all the loyalty he has given Simone, from being accomplice in crimes to saving his life after a drug deal goes bad, is not reciprocated by the monster. Marcello thus sets off on the path to a gruesome revenge.
The scale of the film is small, and in many ways that makes it so much more tense and enthralling. Garrone is undoubtedly a director who deals well with exploration of themes such as masculinity, loyalty and violence, and here is no different. He crafts a tale that never feels in a rush to get to the gory revenge fantasy, but when it does pays off in spades.
Key to this is centering the story around a hero we can support, and Marcello is just such a character. Whether its his love of dogs (his rescue of a frozen dog is particularly touching), his love for his daughter or, indeed, his love of basking in the power and notoriety of his ‘friends’, there is something to admire or recognise in him for most. Fonte won the best actor prize for this role at Cannes, and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s a somewhat thankless role, but Fonte crafts this as a relatable character that you can root for, without ever forgetting his pitiful and, ultimately, human nature.
Dogman is also supported by beautiful, gripping cinematography. DOP Nicolai Bruel shoots this sleepy Italian city with an almost fairytale quality; a mythical land where a cut-out antagonist like Simone could actually exist (and indeed where one could make a living operating this ramshackle dog grooming business). It crafts an aura of otherworldliness that subdues some of the violence.
That otherworldliness helps underscore the central metaphor of the film; the ideas around man's place in nature, the pack like nature of the animal kingdom, and what man will do to be top dog.
Dogman is a gripping piece of Italian cinema that marks somewhat of a return to form for Garrone.