As good as Fonte is playing the proverbial trampled worm who eventually turns, he’s in competition with the movie’s setting. His home is a fantastically dilapidated strip of Mediterranean beach north of Naples known as Villaggio Coppola, which could win an award for Most Allegorical Set. Originally built in the late-1960s as a residential resort, the complex fell afoul of zoning laws and its residents were subsequently evacuated. A few remain, including fresh squatters, in a legal grey area known as parco degli abusivi or park of the illegals that stands as a monument to criminal waste and failed dreams.
After a couple of detours (the satiric Reality and the fantastic anthology Tale of Tales) director Garrone — best known for his 2008 film Gommorah — returns to the neo-realist theme of pervasive social corruption. Hand-held cameras jump around the local characters’ care-worn faces while long shots remind us of the purgatorial environment they inhabit.
Garrone and his co-writers show considerable skill in creating a brutish half-civilized world though he paints in broad emotional strokes: a cute kid, a parade of gorgeous and weird dogs, a wasteland inhabited by a monster.
The improbable pampered pooch parlour operated by Fonte’s character, also named Marcello, provides another metaphor of animals in cages. The shops around him are more credible in this desperate place: a cash-for-gold store and a slot machine arcade, a simple trattoria where the owners share meals on the patio. In the evening, they play pickup games on the complex’s abandoned soccer pitch.
Small and obsequious Marcello tries to be everyone’s friend. He’s at his most likeable when he’s patiently grooming the dogs with the help of his eight-year-old daughter Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), with whom he shares custody with his ex-wife. He and Alida scuba dive together, and he has a dream of taking her somewhere on a diving holiday. To get some extra money, he sells cocaine to the scourge of the strip, a giant former boxer Simoncino (Edoardo Pesci) who tends to hurt people and break things when he’s angry.
Simoncino isn’t just unstable; he’s also cunningly predatory, making a living as a petty burglar. Simoncino cuffs Marcello, semi-affectionately, but also forces him to be an accomplice to his crimes. Marcello believes he can manage the brute, the way he can calm a vicious dog but Simoncino keeps creating more chaos for the other shop owners on the strip. Marcello sits quietly at the trattoria as the other men discuss about whether they can find someone to make Simoncino go away permanently.
Simoncino pushes harder. He compels Marcello to help him rob the gold shop which shares a wall with Marcello’s pet boutique. Marcello tries but fails to talk him out of it. Later, he’s framed and jailed. A year passes in a blink and then Marcello gets out again. He discovers he’s ostracized by the other store owners at the beach. There’s not much left for him to do but seek out Simoncino for the confrontation has been building for a long time.
Dogman is essentially one long, twisted fuse burning toward an inevitable explosion. If the results are too conspicuously manipulated to feel cathartic, there’s no denying a certain dark poetry to this old-fashioned film with its whiplash of modern violence and bitter futility.
Dogman. Directed by Matteo Garrone. Written by Ugo Chiti and Matteo Garrone and Massimo Gauioso. Starring Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Nancia Schiano, Adamo Dioisi, and Franceso Acquaroli. Opens June 21 in Toronto (at the TIFF Bell Lightbox), Vancouver and Montreal, and throughout the summer in other cities.