A few years ago, director Matteo Garrone burst into the international filmmaking scene with Gomorrah, an almost anthropological study of the crime syndicates in the crumbling working class communities of Naples. It was a gangster epic set in a sad world where characters could only dream of Scarface-style flights of criminal fancy while struggling to get by in a pathetic and seedy world that barely resembled their fantasies. Now, Garrone returns with a smaller story set in a similar world that’s no less potent or poignant despite its humbler focus.
Marcello Fonte is absolutely amazing in a self-named role that deservedly earned him a Best Actor trophy at Cannes. He plays a lonely and divorced father who operates a dog-grooming business in a gorgeously crumbling seaside community. Marcello is liked by his tightknit community, but is hardly respected in any walk of life. He’s a small and humble little man whose scrawny physique and permanent hangdog face reveal a lifetime of abuse and dismissal before he even opens his mouth. This strange world is also home to a doppelganger of sorts named Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a local bully who lives to snort cocaine during the day, take advantage of everyone in his path, and beat up anyone who dares to question his shitty lifestyle. He’s an id to Marcello’s ego and, unsurprisingly, Simoncino constantly takes advantage of the little guy. Things get so bad from Simoncino’s pathetic reign of terror that members of the community decide that they might even have him killed, an idea that Marcello rejects out of some unearned sense of loyalty and perverted integrity. Marcello sticks up even for those who bring him down, which doesn’t exactly work out well for the guy whose life is a collection of small joys and constant setbacks.
Garronne’s latest feature has a fable-like nature. Symbolism is rather obvious (the unwavering loyalty of a dog, etc.) and themes are executed with blunt force. It works because the characterization and storytelling are so firmly rooted in the filmmaker’s particular brand of harsh realism. The setting he found for the story is practically a character in itself. What was once a thriving beach vacation community is now a rotting shell (including an evocatively rusted-out dragon rollercoaster for children with a death wish). Dogman takes place in a lost world populated by inhabitants who act as if the old rules still apply. Simoncino might be a hulking idiot, but he also knows that there’s no need to follow any dated sense of morality to get what you want. Marcello might be a good man, but all his attempts at noble actions and kindness earn him the punishments and pain that should rightfully land on Simoncino. The world is fucked, morality is dead, and life is a process of painful survival. Cheery movie, huh?
Fortunately, there’s enough warm humor and humanism running through the deeply cynical Dogman to make it pass as entertainment. This might be the type of story that can only end in one tragic way easy to predict, but watching the train wreck play out in painful slow motion remains a searing and memorable experience. Garrone shoots the nasty tale and ugly world with a singular sense of cinematic style that feels intoxicating. The performances (especially from the remarkable Fonte) are so real that they hurt and help overcome the arch nature of the story.
This is another powerful and unforgettable crime movie from Garrone, who has quickly established himself as a master of the genre. How many stories he has left to tell in this world is a reasonable question, but as long as he’s cranking out movies as intriguing and devastating as Dogman, that’s not something worth worrying about.