‘Dogman’ Cannes review: a shaggy dog story, skilfully clipped
- Robbie Collin, Film Critic
18 May 2018 • 10:42am
Dir: Matteo Garrone; Starring: Marcello Fonte, Eduardo Pesce, Alida Baleari Calabria. Cert tbc, 102 mins.
Dogman sounds like he could be a superhero, but he’s actually more of a crossbreed. Twist up the DNA strands of Buster Keaton and a Dachshund and you would get Marcello (Marcello Fonte), the owner of a modest grooming parlour in a dilapidated Italian seaside resort whose low-rise apartment blocks look like haphazard stacks of giant, sun-bleached milk crates.
With his wiry frame, soulful eyes and twitching muzzle, Marcello has a funhouse-mirror bond with his canine clients: when he resuscitates a chihuahua, tenderly kneading its chest and whispering encouragement, it’s as if the animal is a child he has dragged from a pond.
In short, he is exactly the kind of marginal eccentric to draw the eye of Matteo Garrone, the Italian director of Dogman, which is screening in competition at Cannes this year. Garrone’s new film signals a step away from his recent inclination towards the fantastic – first in Reality, then all-out in his first English-language feature, Tale of Tales – and back towards the spit and grit of his 2008 international breakthrough Gomorrah, which interwove five tales from the Neapolitan underworld.
But the Fellini-esque tendency that shone out from Reality and Tale of Tales is still very much in evidence. As a kind of pint-sized Auguste clown, fumbling and bumbling away on the bottom rung of life, Marcello feels a little like a masculine take on Giulietta Masina’s naive young heroine in La Strada, trying to get by in the thrall of Zampanò, a brutish strongman with no-one’s best interests at heart other than his.
Marcello’s Zampanò is Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a dumb former boxer the size of a refrigerator, who torments the entire town’s on a continuous basis. When Marcello isn’t scrubbing, shearing or kneading pooches – sequences that are often skilfully played for deadpan laughs – he sells small wraps of cocaine on the side.
Unfortunately for him, Simone is by far his most regular customer, appearing far more regularly than Marcello would like, given his penchant for violence and heinously short fuse. But his dealing income funds an annual scuba-diving holiday with his young daughter Alida (Alida Baleari Calabria), who seems like a natural heir to the parlour – so with his heart in his mouth, he persists.
Dogman has the drum-tight two-part structure of a snappy morality tale, or a well-turned joke: it’s a shaggy dog story, skilfully clipped. The first half focuses on Marcello’s increasingly perilous relationship with Simone, leading to a dire and community-betraying criminal act, while the second, set one year later, explores the long-term fallout – and how Marcello, like even the scraggliest mutt, will eventually bite back.
Fonte is magnetically expressive in the lead role, capturing the character’s odd mixture of skittishness and – yes – doggedness, with the latter eventually drowning out the former as the stakes grow armrest-grippingly high.
And as with all of Garrone’s films, its odd, self-enclosed world and the idiosyncratic types that populate it are vividly and affectionately sketched. The resort has the eerie feel of a ghost town from a western: its only remaining residents are male, middle-aged and conspicuously underemployed, and each one has a face whose crags and creases suggest an entire series-worth of grimly fascinating stories set on this fading frontier.
There are outbursts of graphic violence: in one surreal brawl in a fairground warehouse, an Oliver Hardy mannequin becomes a blunt-force weapon, and the camera coolly watches the blood trickle down its grinning fibreglass face. Dogman unfolds its relatively straightforward story with both thrilling style and serious moral force: it’s a sensation judged on either bark or bite.