After I watched Dogman, the newest film by Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone, I came out of the Kinobar with a very mixed set of thoughts. I’m still not convinced that this film accomplishes what it sets out to do, or whether it actually does by leaving the audience wondering about exactly what that goal might be.
The film’s narrative progresses from an upbeat, oddball character study to a sinister, impenetrable allegory without any interest in reconciling or explaining itself. Dogman is a depressingly beautiful film full of thought-provoking, dreadful imagery, following a tragic but most of all ambivalent protagonist.
Marcello Fonte, the titular Dogman, is a locally renowned and now internationally recognized character actor. His work in this movie has been universally praised, and was even rewarded with the 2018 Best Actor Award at Cannes.
His character, also named Marcello, runs a canine grooming salon in the Magliana neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome. The intimate, expert interactions with his canine clients are as endearing as his absolute love and dedication to his daughter. He would be relegated to the fringes in any other film: a guy who everybody in the neighborhood knows and likes, but who, at the same time, is not held in high regard or taken too seriously by anyone.
Marcello’s sweetness and his desire to be liked by everybody is also to his own detriment. He deals cocaine on the side but we are never clued into whether he does so to make ends meet or just because it makes him popular with the more dubious members in his community.
Throughout the film’s narrative, his actions become more and more drastic and disturbing, as he struggles to keep everyone in his world happy with him and his decisions. Consequentially, he finds his most immovable obstacle in the ex-boxer Simone (Edoardo Pesce). A towering, ogre-like figure who seems to act solely on instinct and immediate needs, Simone works perfectly as a villain whose villainy is not rooted in superior intellect or endless resources. His sheer strength is an asset that grants seemingly impenetrable power in director Garrone’s world.
Brute force in general is a powerful element in the film, and its potency is often disregarded when showing power structures in our modern society.
It is also often mischaracterized as a mere product of circumstance, or personal preference in amoral individuals.
The noble gangster whose upbringing and environment practically forced him to become a criminal is a beloved character by filmmakers and audiences alike. In this archetype, we get to feel good about the bloodshed on display and can easily sympathize with people living outside the law.
In Dogman, Simone’s outlaw nature and violent acts are none of those things. The film even puts in the effort to show his mom and her compassionate feelings towards her son. None of this matters to Simone, though. His reactionary decisions make it clear that brutality has simply always worked best for him. So why should he resort to anything else?
Garrone, the director, writer and producer of Dogman, has made a name for himself by showing the dilapidated, rotten facets of modern Italy. His major festival hit Gomorrah, based on the investigative account of Roberto Saviano’s plunge into the Camorra crime syndicate, has gotten him universal acclaim as well as the coveted Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008.
However, the similarities between Dogman and Gomorrah are only applicable in tone and imagery. Criminality is handled differently, despite the near-identical scenery it takes place in.
The criminal activity in Dogman is not as sinister or exciting. In fact, it is not particularly interesting or captivating at all. Most violent scenes are calmly unsettling.
The only element that breaks this calm is the unique sense of humor that’s imparted in many of the more challenging scenes. It is not humor for levity’s sake, though. Rather, visual gags are juxtaposed with a dreadful narrative, acting like an amplifier more than a release.
The absurdity and brutality of the visual humor within the story of Marcello even inches away from cringe to create genuine, palpable discomfort.
It seems as if Garrone wanted to wash himself clean of his own perceived guilt for any and all attention he directed towards the criminal element, even if it was as indicting and critical as in Gomorrah. The criminality and violence in Dogman are a dull, inevitable consequence of Marcello’s actions. The perpetrator, on the other hand, is peculiarly passive. Simone’s stone-faced brutality plays like a joke that is supposed to leave the audience choking on its own laughter.
With his Uncle Sam attire and impulsive behaviour, Simone’s allegorical signifiers are immediately obvious and infer the rise of fascistic tendencies and authoritarian figures in modern Western culture.
Garrone is not overly subtle or precious about exhibiting these motifs.
Marcello’s fellow store owners are even more potent figures under this thematic consideration. Their reactions to the terrorizing force of ex-boxer Simone range from cowardly disregard to outright plans for assassination.
The only solution to this threat is the recruitment of an opposing brute force. The only alternative is to accept their fate. Nobody even considers entrusting the issue to any institution or authority. In fact, the mere idea of institutional justice is immediately laughed off within the discussion.
Eventually, Marcello’s journey ends as tragically and drastically as the films narrative development would suggest. The result is a grim, sad malaise in the viewer as she or he watches the credits.
Personally, I could not help but yearn for a more character-driven approach.
The ingredients are all there. Marcello is a captivating character; his portrayal by Fonte is tender and compelling. The environment and Garrone’s world of Italian disrepair are fully formed and thoroughly believable. There is even a hint at a more life-affirming film in the brief, taciturn scenes following Marcello in his ordinary life.
But once the film puts its focus on the dichotomy between Marcello and Simone, this option is eliminated. Dogman is a film about being less ambivalent about its own ambivalence. The mixed feelings I still have about it mirror this sentiment, which will continue to polarize its audiences.
Cover shot: public domain photo