Director Matteo Garrone made his big international breakthrough with ‘Gomorrah’, which looked to expose, in nauseating detail, the full degree to which organised crime has clogged the arteries of Italian society. A few years later, he directed ‘Tale Of Tales’, which linked stories of princesses, ogres, and horny kings through imaginative and gruesome twists, in which fundamental urges (sex, parenthood, etc.) were given convoluted remedies that involve sea monster anatomy, self-mutilation, and the breast milk of woodland hags.
Garrone combines the gritty crime drama of ‘Gomorrah’ and the morality fable vibe of ‘Tale of Tales’ for his latest film, ‘Dogman’.
Marcello (an amazing, ferret-like Marcello Fonte), runs a pet-grooming business (called Dogman) in a rundown coastal suburb of an unnamed Italian city. He’s short and scrawny, with a mouth crowded with big teeth and a high-pitched, curiously flute-like voice - an Italian Steve Buscemi, if you will. He’s also total pushover who dotes on his young daughter (Alida Baldari Calabria) and patiently cares for even the fiercest of dogs at his work. The film opens with him cooing soothingly to a snarling Rottweiler just waiting for a chance to savage him with it's teeth - it stands heavily chained in a big metal sink while he comically tries to shampoo it from a distance with a mop.
Being liked by all and sundry is important to him. He has an almost canine-like loyalty and good-naturedness, a willingness to forever turn the other cheek, lend a helping hand, and see the good in those around him. This trait is also a huge Achilles heel.
Here’s where the morality fable kicks in, which riffs heavily on ‘The Scorpion and The Frog’. For those unfamiliar with it: a scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. The frog hesitates, afraid of being stung by the scorpion, but the scorpion argues that if it did that, they would both drown. The frog considers this argument sensible and agrees to transport the scorpion. The scorpion climbs onto the frog's back and the frog begins to swim, but midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. The dying frog asks the scorpion why it stung the frog, to which the scorpion replies, “I couldn't help it. It's in my nature.”
The moral of the story is that, like the scorpion, humans possess compulsions that they cannot repress even when it is in their best interest. Conversely, like the frog, humans can be too trusting and hence the importance of understanding others by their true nature.
‘Dogman’ is all about the friendship between Marcello and his own “scorpion”, a hulking, scarred ex-boxer named Simone (Edoardo Pesce, another great performance).
The two differ wildly in size and temperament, like Spike the Bulldog and Chester the Terrier from the Looney Tunes cartoons, but the imbalance of power between them is even more pronounced. The adenoidal Simone takes daily advantage of his diminutive companion, shaking down Marcello for money and drugs, and even roping him into his petty criminal schemes, at one point forcing the groomer to play getaway driver for a burglary that leaves a dog locked in a refrigerator.
What is it about Simone that fascinates the good man? Or more generally, what is it that attracts men to evil and the criminal underbelly and prevents good men from stopping them?
Admittedly, the barbaric lug tends to lean on everyone - he head-butts slot machines, slaps shopkeepers around, and rips off drug dealers, to the point where most of the other business owners are ready to consider just having him killed, except for the town jeweller, who notes that Simone is like a rabid dog that someone else will eventually put down. Marcello sits in on the meeting mutely, unwilling to take action, neither disagreeing nor defending Simone. Things continue to escalate from there.
This is the bare-bones breakdown of Matteo Garrone’s lean parable, which culminates in an inevitable confrontation between the fawning sycophant and smug prizefighter. What is it about Simone that fascinates the good man? Or more generally, what is it that attracts people to the evil criminal underbelly and turns good men into bystanders while their community is reduced to rubble? ‘Dogman’ was filmed around the Camorra-raddled hinterlands of Naples, and the post-apocalyptic empty lots and overgrown beach turn into a metaphysical wasteland in a finale that suggests the impossibility of ridding the world of the devil.
A strong vein of absurd black comedy runs through the film, exemplified during a brawl in which Simone bashes a man’s head repeatedly against the face of an Oliver Hardy mannequin while Stan Laurel and Marcello look on in wide-eyed horror. The film’s dark subject matter is matched by the deep shadows of Nicolai Brüel’s contrast-heavy cinematography - lighting and camerawork (sometimes handheld and human, sometimes fixed and looming overhead) play a major role in creating a setting that is simultaneously real and imagined.
Tense, bowstring tight and to the point, yet possessing a sardonic sense of humour, ‘Dogman’ will follow you home after you leave the cinema.