At times, the bleak seaside village in “Dogman” resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland from George Miller’s world, but instead of a rugged former cop named Max, we’re stuck with a scrawny dog groomer named Marcello (Marcello Fonte) in what could be alternatively titled, “Mad Marcello: Furball Road.”
Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone who brought us 2008’s superb organized crime drama “Gomorrah” returns with another survival of the fittest fable filled with brutality and violence. At times, the film can be frustrating to watch as vengeance takes a back seat to compassion. Still there’s plenty of bite in this canine tale filled with drugs, thugs and a remarkable performance by Fonte, who took home the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
On the outskirts of an Italian city in what resembles a decaying boardwalk, we find a small shop surrounded by layers of concrete where Marcello runs his dog grooming business. The meek, single dad known to the locals as Dogman (which is also the name of his business) is often seen with his young daughter, Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), as she gives him a helping hand with the canines. The two have a close relationship and often go scuba diving together on vacation. During his spare time, Marcello plays soccer with a group of fellow business owners who resemble a close-knit group of wiseguys.
On the surface, Marcello’s life seems legit, so it’s jarring the first time we see him reach for a hidden stash of cocaine without attracting the attention of his daughter as she grooms a dog nearby. Now we know how he can afford all those vacations with Alida.
The drugs are for the town’s local bully, an ex-boxer-turned-cokehead named Simone (Edoardo Pesce) who continuously takes advantage of Marcello by taking the drugs without paying for them and by getting the dog groomer mixed up in petty crimes without a cut of the profits.
Marcello goes along with Simone, catering to the thugs’ every whim because, of course, he doesn’t want to get pummeled, but there’s also a weird fascination with Simone as if Marcello looks up to the herculean goon. Several times in the film an opportunity presents itself that gives Marcello a way out, yet the spineless Dogman continues to make one dumb move after another. It becomes rather frustrating for the audience to witness.
Garrone’s welcomed return to the seedy criminal underworld is heightened by Nicolaj Brüel’s striking cinematography, which is devoid of bright light keeping the atmosphere dark and gloomy. Pesce’s brute performance keeps the tension high while Marcello Fonte fires on all cylinders as the timid and mousy dog lover who is pushed to the edge time and time again.
“Dogman” is filled with so many great moments that I felt it was best to leave them out of this review for maximum impact. There are a few humorous scenes that produce a nice moment of levity and respite in this otherwise dark fable that sinks its teeth into you.