As we’ve continuously seen in acclaimed films such as Gomorrah and Tale of Tales, Italian director Matteo Garrone holds an enduring fascination with society’s dark underbelly. Whether it’s organized crime or supernatural forces, he seems to derive inspiration from lifting up rocks and examining the squirming bugs hidden underneath. Now, with Dogman, Garrone has pulled back to pick apart the subtle violence of everyday existence, specifically the claustrophobia of suburban life.
In a remote seaside village, kind and unassuming Marcello (an outstanding Marcello Fonte) seems perfectly happy in his dog grooming business, even if he has to supplement it with small-time drug deals in order to take his daughter on exotic getaways. His dabblings in a life of petty crime soon get him intertwined with local bully Simone (Edoardo Pesce), whose hateful conduct pushes him to his limits. Forced to take a stand, Marcello goes to extraordinary lengths to rid his neighborhood of its terrorizing menace.
It’s easy to read a level of cynicism in Dogman. After all, it’s the story of an endlessly empathetic protagonist who wants to believe that all people are inherently good, only to be proven wrong time and time again. However, there’s a strange layer of optimism draped over Matteo Garrone’s glum character piece. In its own twisted way, Dogman plays out like a David and Goliath story. Thanks to Fonte’s endearing performance, we root for Marcello, even when his actions dip into the brutal and unconscionable. Perhaps we are simply drawn toward the struggle of an underdog, as we witness his unlikely revenge fantasy unfold. We want to believe that, regardless of what reprehensible paths we follow him down, his essence remains pure.
But, as Garrone reminds us, this fable far from being so black and white. We are being shown two opposing forces, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that either one is morally sound. Marcello is struggling to hold onto his principles, but the world around him does all that it can to send him to his breaking point. Dogman isn’t a matter of whether or not the aura of selfish depravity will squeeze him into submission, but rather when. There’s a looming tension as we wait for him to abandon all hope for gentle diplomacy, realizing that he has to combat Simone on his own level. We don’t feel joy when he finally snaps, but there is an undeniable sense of release.
Dogman continuously blurs the line between dream and reality, painting a grim world that could at any moment be revealed to be a facade. As we are dragged through the ramshackle streets of a suburb lost in time, our story seems to follow in the steps of film Westerns, as if Marcello and Simone are planning to settle their differences with a gunfight at high noon. In a gnarled and contorted light, Dogman is an allegory about determination, if only to have us question why our society values the trait so blindly.