AFI Fest 2018: Dogman, by David Bax
Dogman starts out bearing some resemblance to a previous film from director Matteo Garrone, 2012’s Reality. That film’s lead was a fishmonger, well liked in his neighborhood; this time around, it’s a dog groomer named Marcello (Marcello Fonte), equally appreciated by the other small business owners on his riverfront block. When Marcello’s prospects in life begin to darken as a result of his friendship with a younger man (Edoardo Pesce), I was reminded of an even earlier Garrone work, 2002’s The Embalmer. Whatever the most apt comparison, Garrone excels at gradually increasing his vice grip on an initially joyful, humanist milieu.
Dogman is very loosely inspired by a real life incident from the early 1980s but don’t look it up if you want to go in unspoiled. Simone (Pesce) is the resident troublemaker in town, speeding his motorcycle up and down the boardwalk, damaging property, starting fights, snorting cocaine and generally wreaking havoc. He’s too violent and unpredictable for anyone to stop him, especially the scrawny Marcello, who has some affection for Simone nonetheless.
Marcello’s relationship with Simone is not unlike the ones he has with the dogs for whom he cares, established in the opening scene of Marcello attempting to give a bath to a muscular, angry American bulldog who’s not having it. Marcello treats a big dog that would just as soon tear his throat out no differently than he does the miniature poodle he grooms at a local competition. He will even put his own safety at risk to save a seemingly doomed chihuahua (one of the film’s best sequences but I won’t give away the details). His treatment of people is no different. Fonte’s nuanced performance keeps Marcello from becoming some infallible modern day saint, though; his insecurities as a divorced father whose daughter adores him despite his guilt at not being able to financially provide for her the way he’d like to bubble just under his constant, nervous smile and reedy, excitable voice.
Marcello’s relentless optimism is even more commendable given the area in which he lives and works. Rome’s Magliana neighborhood–at least the part of it near the river–is rundown and sparsely populated. This wasn’t always the case, as evidenced by the rusted rollercoaster and children’s play equipment just outside Marcello’s door. Clearly, this was once a bustling recreation center. Now, it seems to have already died, adding to the impression that Marcello and his fellow residents are living somewhere on the edge of reality and civilization as we know it.
Garrone deals in tragedy, particularly by the ancient Greek drama meaning of the word. Marcello’s desperate need to please is his fatal flaw but Dogman won’t show us the mercy of letting his undoing happen quickly. Drawing things out for over a year, Garrone slowly drains the hope out of the world–the score appears less and less frequently while it rains more and more–but he keeps us hanging on, yearning for Marcello to get a break. Deep down, we know he won’t but we care too much to look away.