Subtle as a great dane, and less convincing than a show poodle that’s trying to pretend she’s an untamed stray, “Dogman” is an obvious and strained little movie about an Italian groomer who’s going through life with his tail between his legs. Another severe consideration of Italy’s criminal underworld from the director of “Gomorrah”— albeit one that hews much closer to the margins than it does to the mob — Matteo Garrone’s latest film might present itself as a cozy revenge saga, but that’s only because it’s trying to throw you off the scent. Alas, it isn’t long before the neutered cries of a three-legged allegory start to come from all directions, the barely hidden subtext barking its head off like a tiny Chihuahua that hasn’t been fed.
Fascism is not good. In fact, it’s actually bad. Italy knows that all too well, even if it appears that some parts of the country might be in urgent need of a refresher course. Marcello, a kind but cowardly dog groomer/coke dealer somewhere on a gray and forgotten stretch of the Italian shore, is about to learn that lesson the hard way. Played to perfection by Marcello Fonte (whose sunken features and hapless attitude suggest a cross-breeding between Peter Lorre and Buster Keaton), Marcello just wants to run his business, spend time with his daughter when she’s on loan from her mom, and stay out of trouble.
It doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Sure, some of the dogs look a bit dangerous — the snarling pit bull he cleans in the first scene evokes the caged raptor from the prologue of “Jurassic Park” — but Marcello adores them all. He even grooms them for dog shows during his free time. He’s the kind of guy who loves to be liked, and he has dozens of best friends.
The only real threat to Marcello’s life and livelihood is a brutish ex-boxer named Simone (Edoardo Pesce). A hulking coke-head who acts like a bull and treats the whole town as his personal china shop, Simone tends to get what he wants. He’s constantly bullying Marcello into submission. At one point, he strong-arms the groomer into giving him free drugs; at another, he forces Marcello to work as a getaway driver during a robbery, only to stiff the poor guy on his share.
Most of Marcello’s friends want to silence Simone (Sicilian style), but our man just can’t seem to betray his bully. Marcello is gifted several opportunities to do so — not even to kill Simone, but rather just to let him die — and he passes on them all. At the height of his battered acquiescence, Marcello even agrees to serve jail-time for Simone. He acts as the patsy for a terrible crime, alienating himself from the community whose affection is his greatest concern. And while he’s convinced that Simone will be waiting for him with open arms at the end of his sentence, that’s not really how this works. Bad men don’t kick dogs to make the pups angry, they do it to make them afraid. To make them whimper and obey.
Simone is a very bad man — so bad (and so indomitable) that “Dogman” eventually starts to resemble a monster movie. Simone is always showing up when Marcello is alone in the dark, an unstoppable beast on the warpath until he gets his pound of flesh (or his next bump of coke). He’s part Frankenstein and part Terminator, a dangerous mutt who’s far off the chain. Of course, monsters are one of cinema’s most reliable sources of metaphor, and that’s doubly true in a stone-faced art film that’s laced with the violence of a Western and endowed with the moral weight of a Bible story. The louder Simone’s bark gets, the less of an actual character he becomes. The harder Marcello bites back, the more abstract his circumstances begin to feel.
In a film that starts with such a clear vision of its corner of the world, it’s very easy to notice when things fogs up and interest fades. Marcello is a compelling character — just scrappy enough for us not to write him off completely — and Fonte never lets the life go out of his blackened eyes. It helps that Garrone totally gets his protagonist. The stiffness of the director’s style invites an ominous, operatic pall to settle over each scene, an effect that belittles Marcello from start to finish. We feel his helplessness every time the camera refuses to move for him, just as we feel his insignificance every time a composition strands him in a small cone of light, an innocent soul in a town of self-interested thugs. There has always been a brute force strength to Garrone’s direction, and that certainly hasn’t changed here.
If only this sleepy and laconic film weren’t so paralyzed by its need to function as a dull parable. All of its warmth and all of its humor (and there are plenty of both in the early stretches) are usurped by a metaphor that doesn’t have any oxygen to spare for such things, and the simplicity of that metaphor is constantly exposed by the grittiness of Garrone’s social-realist approach.
Fascism, “Dogman” argues, can be represented by one man, but it functions as a complete and inescapable system. It relies on a dark perversion of the loyalty that dogs provide. But loyalty, unto itself, isn’t necessarily a virtue — being loyal to the wrong person can enable all manner of evils. Dog’s are man’s best friend because they love unconditionally and lack the capacity to think that through — even Hitler’s German Shepherd adored him. This isn’t all that much of a mystery, even if we sometimes forget to be mindful of it. Garrone’s oppressively bleak new film isn’t memorable enough to help us with that. Woof.
“Dogman” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.