In the dilapidated buildings of the unidentified coastal town in Dogman, the community is tight and lives very modestly. Marcello (Marcello Monte) is the titular character, the local dog groomer beloved by all, canine or human. The attention with which he washes, dries, brushes and massages the angry pitbulls or delicate poodles is a welcome glimmer of hope and humour in this desolate landscape, which at first distances Matteo Garrone’s new film from the nightmarish vision of poor Italy he presented in Gomorra, his most acclaimed feature (Dogman is, however, based on a true and gruesome story). Whether aggressive or cute, the dogs that pass through Marcello’s hands are innocent beings and reveal in this short, smiling man a bottomless well of kindness.
Garrone builds a study in contrasts from this sensitive character navigating through and taking part in a criminal world. As kind as Marcello can be with his clientele and his young daughter, he also deals drugs for Simone (Edoardo Pesce), an aggressive lone wolf who doesn’t say or do much besides speeding through town on his loud bike and angrily asking the dogman for more coke. Marcello’s generosity is both his greatest asset and his most dangerous trait. For all the respect he garners with his honest business, Marcello also gets the consideration of Simone, which turns quickly into a suffocating gratitude: Simone can never get enough of Marcello’s sympathy.
Garrone hints at a parallel between Simone and Marcello’s most threatening dogs early on and chooses to paint this dangerous character with simple, clear strokes, as if he truly were just an angry bulldog. Adorning a leather jacket emblazoned with the words “Uncle Sam,” Simone could also be an on-the-nose metaphor for the destructive influence of America, with its predilection for illegal substances and its controlling hand over the European economy. If this two-dimensional approach makes Dogman often ridiculous and silly, the elementary nature of drug addiction — the only remedy to a sudden craving is to consume more, and fast — justifies it to an extent. When Simone shows up on Marcello’s door in the middle of the night asking him to help with a break-in, his readiness to hurt his one and only friend also make things simple for Marcello. Violence turns the world black-and-white which takes off the blame from the dog groomer: he may have been too generous to Simone, but his kindness isn’t what drove him to crime. Garrone is more sorry for Marcello’s corruption than he is frustrated by his naivety.
As his existence turns into a series of life-or-death choices, Marcello spirals further and further into absurdity. When paying for crimes he didn’t commit as much as let happen and not being shown any gratitude or compassion for it, his moral system of fairness breaks down completely. His revenge is as bloody and senseless as his grooming is gentle. Garrone’s political critique of drug trafficking takes the surrealist route by passing through brutal realism, where Simone is treated like less than a dog — a piece of meat. However, this moment of apotheosis in Garrone’s story of collateral damage and unfortunate consequences remains somehow too tame and concise to have the impact of tragedy. Marcello’s retribution, although deeply unsettling, appears staged instead of fated. More successful is how Dogman reaches a satisfyingly dispiriting conclusion in the last few minutes, where Marcello, after all, remains as touching as ever.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.