Matteo Garrone’s Dogman revolves around the turbulent relationship between a classic good guy and a classic bad guy. The former is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a doting father and dog groomer who willingly risks his life to save dogs from abuse. The latter, meanwhile, is Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a bulky criminal who gets his way in life by clobbering people into oblivion. In their rundown neighborhood on the outskirts of Rome, the two men maintain a fragilely symbiotic friendship: Marcello gives Simone cocaine, and Simone occasionally gives Marcello money from jobs.
The central plot of Dogman is fairly simple. Marcello runs a dog clinic that’s located right next to a pawnshop. Sensing an opportunity, Simone insists that Marcello allow him to enter the clinic and break into the pawnshop by punching through the wall. While Marcello initially refuses, he eventually yields after Simone roughs him up and promises to make the job look “clean.”
Fast forward to the next morning. Marcello arrives at his clinic to find a bunch of police officers, a crowd of onlookers…and an enormous hole in the clinic’s wall. (Naturally, Simone is nowhere to be seen.) Although the crime scene implicates Marcello, the police suspect that Simone coerced Marcello, and they thus offer to let Marcello go if he signs a statement incriminating Simone. For whatever reason, however, Marcello refuses to do so. And in consequence, he ends up spending a year in prison for his abusive “friend” – a year that takes away his naïveté and leaves him bent on revenge.
As a film, Dogman has plenty of strengths, but one of them definitely isn’t originality. Given the narrative’s black-and-white sense of morality – Simone is the embodiment of “might makes right,” while for the most part, Marcello epitomizes the saying that “nice guys finish last” – it proves fairly easy to guess where Dogman ends up going. If you’re someone who enjoys stories with twists and creative premises, you’ll be irritated by what is in some ways just a modern-day “Aesop’s fable” (to quote Phil de Semlyen from Time Out).
Get over that hurdle, however, and you’ll still find Dogman to be a powerful film for several reasons. The first is Nicolai Brüel’s cinematography. With its reliance on long takes and long shots, the film depicts Simone and Marcello’s neighborhood as a wasteland, a barren environment that’s pervaded by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. This setup allows you to better appreciate the despair and desperation that guide many of Marcello’s actions, and it also lends the inevitable conclusion a remarkable sense of poignancy.
What really makes Dogman “work,” however, is Fonte. Even though he has next to no prior experience in major acting roles, Fonte artfully captures the emotional nuances of his character. At first a throwback to the impassivity of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp and Buster Keaton, Fonte’s stoic expression eventually becomes an exercise in subtlety, a face on which every tiny movement conveys deeper feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness. Fonte deservedly won the Best Actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – and ultimately, it’s largely thanks to him that Dogman proves so rewarding.