The Guardian's 5 star review of ‘Dogman,’ Matteo Garrone's terrific portrait of a criminal dogsbody
Thu 17 May 2018 12.07 BST Last modified on Fri 18 May 2018 10.20 BST
The Italian director nitpicks gangster insecurities with hilarious flair in this tale of a dog-groomer-cum-smalltime coke dealer
Matteo Garrone’s Dogman is a compelling opera of beta-male criminal martyrdom, inspired by a true case. It’s a movie which returns this film-maker to the realist mob world of his 2008 film Gomorrah, but which goes further than that picture in explaining the toxic emotional inadequacy of gangsterism — its brutality, its sycophancy, its pusillanimity, its craven addictions.
This is a movie rooted in an arena of petty thievery and urban ruin, a derelict estate outside of town. We are introduced to an unfunny double act of codependent violence. Marcello, played by Marcello Fonte, is a nerdy little guy separated from his wife and doting on his young daughter, Sofia (Alida Baldari Calabria), who adores him. Marcello runs a dog-grooming business and shows real courage in facing down the terrifying beasts that local tough guys fondly bring in for him to wash and tend to, dogs that are often bigger than Marcello himself. Off duty, he plays five-a-side football with his buddies and hangs out with them. He’s popular. But there’s a specific reason for that. Marcello is no angel: he deals coke on the quiet. This pays for the lavish holidays he takes Sofia on – dog-grooming doesn’t bring in that kind of money.
And Marcello has indirectly created a monster: a violent tough guy and poisonous bully called Simone – played superbly by Edoardo Pesce – who has been turned into a raging cokehead through Marcello’s business. The hideous Simone resembles the nightclub-era Jake LaMotta from Raging Bull, or, physically maybe, Renato Salvatori’s Simone from Rocco and His Brothers. He is Marcello’s best customer, but has long since stopped paying in cash, switching to an open-ended notional credit mixed with threats of violence. The aggressive and unstable Simone has to be appeased by every nervous guy around town, and he bullies Marcello into coming along on burglaries with him, as the getaway driver at the wheel of the little van he drives the dogs around in. And, however much he resents Simone, Marcello wants to be his pal – an issue that makes itself plain when he saves Simone’s life after an attempted revenge hit from Marcello’s wholesale suppliers. But then the dog-groomer realises his “friend” expects him to do prison time for him.
Aren’t they both canines? Simone is the snarling attack dog who will one day need to be put down. Marcello is the cringingly loyal lapdog who always returns to the abusive master. But the actual dogs in this film have a dignity and charm wholly lacking in the humans.
Is Marcello fundamentally a sweet-natured innocent, or a delusional chump unable or unwilling to see his own part in the food-chain of culpability? Actually, the movie persuades you to believe the former in the sensational burglary scene. Poor Marcello is strong-armed into coming along with the tacit promise of a share in the loot. As he is driving Simone and another tough guy away, he is aghast to hear one of them giggle about how he took the absent householder’s yapping chihuahua, which was going to give the game away, and locked it in the freezer. Marcello’s grim face tells us the truth: once he has dropped off the two robbers, he is going to have to return to the scene of the crime, break back inand rescue the dog – and he doesn’t have much time. It is a sensationally funny, exciting scene.
Perhaps inevitably, the only person who isn’t scared of Simone – and who has any chance of telling him off – is his mother, played by Nunzia Schiano, but even she has given up. There is a toe-curling tragicomic scene when Marcello brings Simone’s bleeding form back to his mum’s house and she gives him a monumental telling off before furiously scattering his cocaine all over the floor. Simone hugs his mum close, but not for the purposes of contrition.
The look and feel of Dogman are terrifically good; Garrone has such brio in the way he shows us Marcello’s happy little life, taking him at his own sentimental estimation of himself, and then shows us his descent into bitterness and vengefulness – and his almost superhuman ability to absorb physical punishment. There is something harrowing about his stream of little endearments to the dogs, the way he tames them, controls them, and thinks he is able – and entitled – to do the same to Simone. A movie with incomparable biteand strength.