Film Review | Dogman

Matteo Garrone returns to Southern Italy in a dark fable about what happens when one pushes a meek dog groomer a bit too far. You won’t believe what happens next!

Dog Does Not Bite Man: The canines appearing in Dogman, as big as they get, are extremely good boys. As opposed to the two protagonists, who are… less so.
Dog Does Not Bite Man: The canines appearing in Dogman, as big as they get, are extremely good boys. As opposed to the two protagonists, who are… less so.

Let's get the most obvious attempt at humour out of the way: the latest from Italian director Matteo Garrone is not, in any way, about a canine-themed superhero, even if the opening might suggest protagonist Marcello (Marcello Fonte) might have a superpower as gently deals with the kind of fierce dog favoured by the typical Mediterranean macho man. Marcello is definitely not that kind of man, what with his being weedy dog groomer operating from a shop lending the film its name.

Such capability with dogs is a definite sign of someone being a decent sort, and Marcello is arguably that. Sure, he might be divorced from his wife and peddles a bit of cocaine on the side, but he remains a respected member of the community and dotes on his daughter, with whom he shares a love for scuba diving. In short, he is an everyman protagonist straight out of the Italian neorealist tradition, if with one exception; he has a friendship of sorts with Simone (Edowardo Pesce), the local tough. Simone is Marcello's opposite in every way, an impressively ugly specimen complete with a wrestler's physique, and his sheer bulk only makes Marcello appear even wimpier. However, the two are in no way an odd couple; their relationship is strictly one-sided, and for all intents and purposes Simone is little more than a bully at best and a raging cokehead at worst, and one who is at least in part abetted by Marcello. The groomer might be able to handle dogs huge enough to dwarf him, but this violent oaf? No chance.

Still, Marcello tries to curry favour with Simone, and only ends up spending a year in prison for his trouble. Simone's failing to recognise such a sacrifice proves to be the last straw, setting this droopiest of dogs to at least attempt to get his way. Those with knowledge of the news story this film is (very loosely) based on - the gruesome 1988 murder of one Giancarlo Ricci by a dog groomer dubbed "Er Canaro" - might have an idea as to how the story proceeds. So will those familiar with Garrone's oeuvre, since in both tone and style Dogman fits firmly on the side of Gomorrah and Reality, as opposed to fantastical oddity Tale of Tales.

As Garrone's return to his southern Italian roots, Dogman’s outlook on the region much like that seen in those two previous films. It is ultimately bleak, if pierced with moments of light and even levity; Marcello’s scuba diving trips with his beloved daughter bring a welcome change of both pace and settings, and there are a couple of amusing sequences, if all bearing a tinge of darkness. Early on Marcello is learns of Simone putting a chihuahua in a freezer during a robbery, which leads the dog lover to the site of the crime, climbing up a drainpipe and making his way through a wrecked apartment in order to find the near-frozen canine. It’s all very tragicomic; witness Marcello facing Simone after his stint in prison, this Droopy Dog of a little man attempting to intimidate someone many times his size. The attempt remains just that, obviously, and the performances by Fonte and Pesce immediately sell the relationship between the two characters, all without need for the film to delve further into how and why they even know each other in the first place.

Further pushing the film’s tone is the setting; Villaggio Coppola, an abortive 1960s attempt at building a beachside utopia north of Naples, is all decaying and rotten concrete, and the photography by Nicolai Brüel does little to tone down the sheer ugliness of the place. Then again, that is obviously the point. Villaggio Coppola's physical decay mirrors the moral decay of its inhabitants, where even the sweet natured dog groomer is the revealed to be the town bully's lapdog, if one hiding what is ultimately a vicious streak.  

Verdict

Bad things tend to happen to those who abuse of smaller dogs, since they tend to be the ones more willing to remind all that they are, ultimately descendants of wolves. And the same can be said of Dogman, a film unassuming in both title and looks, and yet in possession of surprisingly pugnacious bite.

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