If Dogman serves as the pinnacle of Matteo Garrone’s career then my, what a career it’s been. Make no bones about it however – this film is the Roman director’s masterpiece. Italy’s official entry to the 2019 Academy Awards has been ravenously applauded by critics, earning its lead actor, Marcello Fonte, the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. A fairy-tale which takes place amongst oppressive, darkly-realised brutalism, this is at times an uplifting film and at others, a deeply upsetting one. Brutal and soft. Its tension is tightly wound and heavy and its characters feel impacted by it, really brought down the the grit and the dust that suffocates them in the world Garrone has crafted.
Marcello (Fonte, turning in an acting masterclass) is a docile, gentle man who owns a dog-grooming business in the derelict, deprived Italian suburb of Naples. He has a daughter he loves and a community who are fond of him. He enjoys scuba-diving off the coast, a brief reprieve from the poverty which awaits him on land. In this town, citizens are living out a waiting game; for a better life, for more investment in infrastructure, for the statutory removal of the bullies and thugs who make money dealing drugs and robbing shops and restaurants. For someone who can make a change to want to.
It would all get a bit bleak then if the focus of Dogman was situational alone. Marcello’s grooming parlour is in major need of a lick of paint, or perhaps burning to the ground and relocating to somewhere, anywhere, more enticing. It’s cold, dark and damp in his shop, but nonetheless, he fills its rooms with his love. Imaginative comedy comes into play with the portrayal of Marcello’s relationship with the dogs he cares for; interactions he shares with a Great Dane as he tends to its nails offer up some of the warmest moments of the film. Whether it’s his referring to every canine around him, big and small, by the name ‘Sweetie’, or sharing his meal spoon-for-spoon with a little Jack Russell Terrier, Marcello is a character full of hilarious nuances and anecdotes. More than that, he’s smart. He knows right from wrong in a world that seems intent on forcing his hand.
Fonte gives the kind of performance here that some actors hope to give their entire lives. He brings vividity to a man surviving by keeping his head below water and out of trouble, aware of the power dynamics which will always work against him. Because of his miniscule stature and sweet nature, he often bends to the will of those larger and more masculine than himself. He harbours an eagerness to please everyone around him but protection is something he seeks too and this sees him, under the watchful eye of his thuggish friend Simone (Edoardo Pesca, expertly cast), bend backwards to supply him with drugs. Simone’s characterisation is deadly, fearfully silent, the personification of a man you want fighting for you, not against you.
The level of threat builds to a point that it becomes palpable; broad, lengthy expositional shots show a dilapidated community gradually going into hiding. Setting the dinner-time conversations between business-owners outside, amongst the dust and the gravel, is a revealing backdrop to the desperate situation they’ve found themselves in. The taut danger feels always to be just round the corner, and wide camera angles ramp up the sense of unease which has settled in the atmosphere. The shadowy, lurking menace of Simone could come down hard at any point, waiting outside the shop, hiding behind a wall as Marcello walks his dogs. Cinematographer Nicolai Brüel allows the audience to pre-empt the film’s threats before its lead character does.
Of course, the lesson Marcello learns is that a man like Simone is fighting for nobody but himself. He sacrifices an awful lot to learn this lesson, and the film goes to some dark depths to explore what this may mean for him. An interesting use of time, matched by the Fonte’s incredible insight into his character throws the audience off pace. The first hour of screen-time is spent matching the film’s beats, even predicting them before they unfold. This is later shown to have been intentional – the shift in Marcello’s personality throws expectations way off course in the most manic way possible.
What a delightful arc for the story to take then, to portray a man once so concerned with his public appearance reaching a point where he has nothing to lose. A scrappy, feverish mental cloud comes down around Marcello in the closing act, throwing the story into a truly disturbing territory, albeit one which makes complete sense. There’s a beautiful creative cohesion from Dogman’s first shot until its very last. The havoc it wreaks upon its characters is pointed and deliberate and lingering, and the taste of sadness it leaves on the tongue is utterly unforgettable.
By Maisie McGregor