Italy (2018) Dir. Matteo Garrone

We are advised the best way to deal with a bully is to stand up to them; unfortunately, as most of them are as thick as they are vicious, they see retaliation as further cause to torment us. A story like this in film requires sensitivity, but when the director gave us violent crime thriller Gomorrah, you know a sensitive narrative is unlikely.

In a small rundown Southern Italian beach town, divorcee Marcello (Marcello Fonte) runs a dog grooming parlour with help from his young daughter Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria) whom he dotes on, sharing a passion for scuba diving with her. But these trips are expensive, so to earn some extra money Marcello has a small sideline in dealing cocaine.

One of Marcello’s customers is Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a former boxer built like a brick outhouse who terrorises the town by throwing his fists around. After going too far, local business owners decide Simone should be killed to end his reign of terror but an attempt backfires. Marcello is the only one to stick by Simone out of fear, until he finds himself in an impossible situation after a robbery Simone forces him to help with goes wrong.  

Despite being the name of Marcello’s business, Dogman is also a metaphorical title and some might say an unsubtle one at that – Marcello is a little Chihuahua whilst Simone is an unstable, ferocious mastiff. The metaphor is extended further visually later in the film but that would require spoilers so you’ll have to take my word for it but it leaves a lot for the audience to ponder, in this case, are humans really any better than dogs?

As a dog owner, I can offer plenty of arguments in support of canines over people but this isn’t really what Matteo Garrone is going for here. Shockingly, this story is based on real events from an infamous post-war crime scenario, although knowing Italy’s history of violence with the Mafia, maybe it isn’t so shocking.

Simone isn’t a Mafia Don, dressed up to the nines, living in luxury and surrounded by an army of henchmen; he’s a loutish, thickly built man mountain with a buzz cut, dressed in a tacky tracksuit and carries himself with all the grace of a gorilla. He only has to hit someone or something to get his way, which is driving the local business owners spare.

He doesn’t even extend any courtesy to Marcello as his supplier, interrupting a grooming session to demand some coke which he snorts on the spot, despite Marcello’s pleas that his daughter is in the next room. The difference is that Marcello cares about being liked by his peers whereas Simone doesn’t give a damn as long as he gets what he wants.

It is this dichotomy that seals Marcello’s fate, although we never know if he acts out of true – albeit mistaken – friendship, fear, or simply towing the line to stay alive. When the idea is floated to have Simone killed, Marcello stays quiet; when Simone is shot, Marcello takes him to safety at his mother’s home. There is a blackly amusing moment when Simone’s mother finds his coke and rips the bag up, spilling the contents on the floor. Simone grabs his mum in a big hug whilst ordering Marcello to scoop the powder up!

To remind us of the gentle soul Marcello is Garrone diverts from the dark drama to show him at work with his canine customers, calming them with his “sweetie pie” patois and attentive care; elsewhere we are treated to nicely shot scenes of father and daughter bonding below the surface during their scuba diving excursions.

But it all comes to a screeching halt when Simone decides to steal from the shop next to Marcello’s by breaking through the adjoining walls. The police know it was Simone but with no proof, ask Marcello to indict Simone or be arrested for the crime, framing the choice as between his daughter’s future or his own. You’d think it would be an easy decision but Marcello shocks us, setting him up for a messy future he couldn’t predict.

Fear then, is a great motive in shaping the decisions we make, and we can only assume this was how Marcello viewed the situation, seeing it as lose-lose in which side would be the most disappointed in him. Garrone makes it so the audience abandons Marcello for his wrong choices, making it hard to support him when he finally mans up in the final act.

Perhaps uncharacteristic for Garrone, much of the violence and criminal activities occur off screen, the later creating some awkward time skips but spares us a downtime in the pacing in depicting the fateful robbery. If any violence is shown, it is never sustained or overly graphic, the bloody aftermath being shocking enough to tell the story. It is this restraint, along with ambient only soundtrack that gives the film a realistic, gritty edge.

Marcello Fonte has a real throwback look to him, resembling a gauche Serge Gainsbourg, making him perfect for such a milquetoast character as Marcello. His slight frame and unassuming appearance instantly posits him as the whipping boy of the tale before it actually gets going, yet it is the subtlety of Fonte’s performance that erases doubts that his turning worm will be credible.

Edoardo Pesce doesn’t have to stretch too far in playing the giant thug Simone, his wanton brutality and disrespectful attitude feeling all too natural. In his “friendship” with Marcello, the size difference automatically establishes a senior-junior dynamic – a scene in a nightclub where Simone sets Marcello up with a sexy dancer is very much an older boy helping his awkward virgin mate out scenario.

Dogman is a film that works on two levels if you know where to look for the symbolism and metaphors, but doesn’t run so deep to exclude audiences looking for an entertaining heavy slice of life drama.