The film opens with devilish snarls, unleashed from an unquiet, salivating dog, as a meek, puny man tries to contain him. The two get into a tug of war, literally and figuratively, a game of control between a stark raving mad animal and a small, bony human figure. This brief introduction, taking place in a grey, metallic, lifeless warehouse-like room, seems to paint the man as a seedy creature who tries to hold an innocent animal hostage despite his physical disadvantage. The scene gets immediately re-contextualized, but it is illustrative of the duality and ambiguity of Dogman‘s power dynamics, present in every situation it establishes.
We soon learn that the man in the opening scene is our main character, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), owner of a humble dog grooming business called Dogman, residing in an impoverished neighborhood. He is very well-known and beloved by the community. He appears at his most sympathetic while bonding with his daughter and gently combing his cute companion’s fur in dog beauty pageants. Fonte is naturally likeable in these scenes, with his accentuated facial features and feeble posture, looking like a friendly face you would not hesitate to greet affably on the sidewalk. However, he is equally capable of coming off as slimy or shady, for example, in scenes where he reveals himself as a coke dealer on the side. There is an inherent ambivalence to his figure, which, at best, evokes an intuitive penchant in the spectator to analyze his presence in relation to those around him, be it the different dogs he takes care of, or his friends from the community. Simone (Edoardo Pesce), Marcello’s acquaintance and drug client, is not ambivalent at all. He surges as a muscular, rampant, monstrous and violent creature, incapable of reason, in counterpoint to his dealer. Due to Marcello’s helpful, passive nature and submissive tendency to comply with Simone’s reckless impositions, he ends up in a downward spiral that jeopardizes his life and position in the community. What ensues is a violent, unforgiving power struggle between these two unbalanced forces, in which morality gets increasingly skewed.
With Dogman, experienced Italian director Matteo Garrone (Gomorra, Tale of Tales) presents us with an unpleasant, rotten, dog-eat-dog world. Worn down and dust-ridden buildings create an urban wasteland, a backdrop in a near state of ruin. This neo-western landscape envelops the narrative with a corrupted feel, filling the gaps in the flowing dynamic between the characters with airs of clandestinity. The cinematography by Nicolai Brüel enhances this every chance it gets. While never overly aestheticizing the poverty of the community, it establishes a consistent tone with gripping wide shots. It thrives in low saturated tones, drenching the screen with sleepy yellows and cold grays. Once the story takes its more bitter turn, it also exceeds in instigating a true sense of emptiness and hopelessness by grounding us in a harsh, unsentimental reality.
And that’s when Dogman is at its visceral best: when it focuses on being simplistic, raw and cruelly moralistic. Unfortunately, its attempts at an allegory in which the behavior of the characters is equated to animal instincts (dogs, in this instance) never go past mere thematic suggestions. At certain points, the camera lingers when the protagonists and various dogs are present on-screen at the same time, trying to get to something, yet nothing truly flourishes into a satisfying thesis. Moreover, the handling of unbalanced power and moral standings between the two characters is inconsistent, despite being a prevalent theme in the film. The core problem may be the treatment of Marcello’s character. It fails as an empathetic piece towards him when the story demands it the most, given that we constantly need to relativize his power status in every scene, depending on the context. Sometimes he is the whimpering victim, others he tries to rival Simone, especially towards the end. And I would not put the blame on Marcello Fonte’s award-winning performance as much as I would on Garrone.
Dogman, while never fully going beyond the thinness of the core plot, is an ultimately effective story, that prospers in chilling, brutal realism. It just isn’t the layered fable it often tries to be.