Canine Style Loyalty - Dogman

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Please note that this article contains spoilers.

Canine-style loyalty turns ugly in Dogman, Matteo Garrone’s bleak new gangster parable about a dog groomer whose desperation to be liked leads him down a very dark path. A return to the criminal underworld of Gomorrah (2008), but retaining some of the fairytale trappings of his last film, the English language fantasy triptych Tale of Tales (2015), the Italian director’s tenth film is a neorealist nightmare, one that harks back to the giants of post-war Italian cinema to present a contemporary exploration of the ways in which dormant fascist tendencies can be awakened. 

Set in a decaying seaside town lined with housing estates, the film’s protagonist is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), kindly proprietor of the eponymous dog grooming parlour, and a man who is eager to please, almost to a fault. More tolerated than embraced by his fellow business owners, he’s so lacking in self-respect he tries to buy the love of his daughter by selling cocaine on the side, oblivious to the fact that she adores him and not his ability to treat her to expensive scuba-diving adventures. His misguided choice of a second career has also brought him into the sphere of Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a violent bully whose raging coke-addiction Marcello has not only fuelled, but is now actively funding: Simone doesn’t pay for his gear in cash; instead he strong-arms Marcello into helping him with his own larcenous activities and palms him off with a small share of whatever low-value loot they accrue. He’s a liability in other words, and the film follows Marcello as he’s dragged down by his misplaced loyalty to him. 

Garrone embraces the canine parallels here. An establishing shot of a small dog yelping at a snarling hellhound in Marcello’s shop tells us everything we need to know about the film’s two-legged protagonists. Marcello is like the town stray, running around desperately trying to please everyone, but always submitting to person who mistreats him the most because that’s who’s giving him the most attention. By contrast, Simone is the foaming-at-the mouth mad dog that just needs to be put down before he does some real damage. The casting plays into this: Pesce is brutish and pit-bull-like; Fonte — who looks like a nervier, if much older, Al Pacino circa The Panic in Needle Park (Dir. Jerry Schatzberg, 1971) — is small and wiry and malnourished looking. It’s appropriate too that Garrone should have found the latter working as a prison guard: images of cages both literal and metaphoric abound in a film that gradually shows how unsavoury ideas are hothoused in environments with diminished opportunities.

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The film is loosely inspired by a true story of a good man turned bad that was apparently infamous in Italy in the 1980s because of the grisly ways in which the person at the centre of it responded to the toxic relationship they found themselves in (torture was involved)[1]. In Dogman — which Garrone has likened to a western, pointing to the frontier-like environs of his locations[2] — the actions of Marcello take a very dark turn and it’s not hard to read the film as a parable about fascism, which thrives on misplaced loyalty to thuggish masters, and inspires brutish responses to personal slights. Crime films are good prisms through which to explore such ideas and a wealth of mafia films from The Godfather (Dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) to Garonne’s aforementioned Gamorrah show very well how that kind of power can be a disruptive force that lets dangerous ideas take root.

Italy, of course, has its own its own dark history of fascism. It’s something the neorealists of the post-war era countered by taking filmmaking to the streets, eschewing cinematic grandeur in favour of humanist stories that reflected the nobility of the downtrodden. Dogman is very much in tradition in films such as Bicycle Thieves (Dir. Vittorio Di Sica, 1948) and even though the common-man tragedy is amplified by Marcello’s ultimate fate, the film isn’t without hope. At one point we see Marcello returning to the scene of a burglary to rescue a Chihuahua that Simone’s associate has silenced by sticking it in the freezer. Running the frozen dog under the hot tap and performing gentle CPR, he manages to bring it back to life — a sign that while evil can flourish, kindness can always be revived. And in a heartening postscript, the scene in question won Dogman the Palm Dog at this year’s Cannes film festival. The Chihuahua’s name? Joy, of course.[3] 

Alistair Harkness
Film critic, The Scotsman

October 2018

[1]Kaleem Aftab, Matteo Garronne Interview, Cineuropa, 19 May 2018:

[2] ibid.

[3] Rhonda Richford, ‘Cannes: 'Dogman' Takes Palm Dog Honor’, 18 May 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter....

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