In light of my excoriation of Harrison Ford’s appalling new film The Call Of The Wild a few days ago, my memory has been jogged into retreading vastly superior works where the relationship between humankind and animal is a focal component. I was thankful to have been reminded of this robust crime drama released a couple of years ago by Matteo Garrone, the Italian cinematic stalwart who gifted the world with atmospherically stunning and challenging feats such as the bizarre psychological drama The Embalmer (2002) and acclaimed organised crime epic Gomorrah (2008). In Dogman, Garrone utilises Man’s best friend in a heavily symbolic fashion as opposed to focusing on a specific homo sapien-canine kinship, but it is nevertheless a whip-smart and emotive thematic device in a wonderful film that received a peculiarly small buzz back in 2018.
Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is a dog groomer living and working in a run-down village by the Italian seaside. At a little over 5 feet tall and painfully slim, Marcello is both a physically and psychologically meek fellow, but his affinity for dogs, passionate work ethic and generally amiable demeanour have put him in high standing with the rest of the town’s inhabitants. He is content to spend his free time sitting at a local eaterie with his friends and fellow business owners and treating his daughter from a previous relationship to expensive gifts and weekends away. He appears to live rather comfortably for a guy who coiffeurs dogs for a living. Perhaps a little too comfortably. In what I found to be something of a humorous reveal, we are shown that he actually moonlights as a dealer for a local cocaine supplier, and if this wasn’t precarious enough in itself, it has paved the way for Marcello’s toxic alliance with the film’s repugnant central villain, Simone.
A towering, powerfully built fellow, Simone (Edoardo Pesce) is an unemployed local scallywag who is reputed in the area for his talent as an amateur boxer. He is also a transparent sociopath of a man with a hair-trigger temper (helped in no small part by his extreme coke habit), given to intimidation, assault, vandalism and theft, all without a second thought or a lick of remorse. His fighting ability and complete lack of either scruples or fear have left everyone in the village powerless to stop his bullying, and he has essentially conscripted Marcello into being his purveyor of free substances and obedient criminal accomplice. Despite the fact that the threat of violence forever looms in the air if people don’t follow his orders, Marcello appears to have taken a genuine liking to Simone, be it from a fascination with his unmitigated tyranny, a residual hope that he may act as a protector, or a tragically naive belief that they are actually friends. Maybe it’s all of these things.
As Marcello passively allows Simone to continue flexing his opportunism and domineering nastiness, he is pushed further into darker and riskier behaviour that ultimately poses a threat to his livelihood, reputation and liberty (and even his life, if he’s not careful). Realising that he will lose all that he holds dear should he continue to play the evil brute’s doormat, he decides that it might be time to draw the association to a close, but his fickle and weak-willed greenhornism, coupled with Simone’s unstable ruthlessness, make this no mean feat whatsoever. Whether he likes it or not, Marcello’s kid gloves are going to have to come off.
Not to imply that the film is bereft of sympathetic characters, but it is imperative to cite the fact that the most likeable and morally upstanding players here are the dogs that Marcello tends to each day. Adorable, unassuming and mostly calm, they pretty much mind their own business while all of the stereotypical behaviour associated with them (be it common views of certain breeds or general consensuses on canine interaction with people) are instead manifested in the primary relationship between Marcello & Simone. Simone is something of a huge, snarling mastiff who attacks without provocation, trusts nobody and (uncharacteristic of dogs) maintains no loyalty, whereas Marcello is a perpetually terrified and pathetic chihuahua, cowering and acquiescing with every bark the big dog directs at him, lest he is ripped to shreds. In an upsetting yet ultimately touching early sequence, Marcello quietly returns to the site of a burglary he was forced into in order to rescue a puppy of the latter breed that Simone had locked in a freezer to keep it quiet. Yes, he really is that much of a shithead. It nicely reinforces Marcello’s likeability and kind nature, even if it is infuriating to watch him be so idiotically trusting of the worst kinds of people.
You could also look at the picture from the vantage point of another analogy, that being Marcello as the whipped dog who bafflingly insists on repeatedly returning to its callous owner. This is perhaps the more fitting one, suggesting that he has spent such a long time in a reciprocally affectionate interaction with dogs that he has adopted their tendency of unquestioning devotion. It is partially for this reason that Simone does whatever he pleases, Marcello incapable of entertaining the thought of betraying him in spite of ample opportunity, but even without his lapdog, it is apparent that Simone would hold sway regardless. A brief discussion amongst Marcello’s slightly more aggressive friends about having Simone ‘taken care of’ is quickly nipped in the bud, as they know that if they stick their heads above the parapet and fail, His Royal Thuggishness will merely ramp up the intensity. It’s a dog’s life for this lot, and no mistake.
As much as Marcello Fonte deserved his Best Actor Award from Cannes for his excellent performance, immense credit must also be given to Edoardo Pesce. Simone is undoubtedly detestable and inspires rage with his arrogant cruelty, but he is also a terrifying presence who injects suspense into every frame that he occupies. At 6-foot-something, with shoulders the width of a truck and a seasoned boxer’s face to boot, he opts to simmer intensely rather than launch into explosive verbal tirades, making his outbursts of violence all the more of a pulse-heightener. There is a distinct lack of police presence in this town for the majority of the film, the locals far too frightened to report him, and it has contributed to him having such a casual disregard for basic mores and order that you could be forgiven for laughing nervously at just how brazenly and chaotically he conducts himself.
Filmed against the backdrop of a bleak and ever-grey beachfront in the Campania region of Southern Italy, Dogman is a suspenseful, sad and unforgiving tale of masculinity, insecurity, injustice and redemption. It is also resplendent with highly authentic moments of humanity and sweetness, made all the more emotionally resonant by the fact that it is based on true events. Taking the concept of the underdog to surprising and inventive heights, it works perfectly as both a solid crime flick and a human-interest story. You’ll be missing out if you don’t track this one down.