MIFF Review: Dogman

Shot amid the cruel, bleak beauty of a riverside neighbourhood in Rome, Dogman talks about misguided loyalties, desperation and the poverty “ethic”.

Our anti-hero is Marcello, a simple man who has built up a business as a dog groomer and sitter, and a solid reputation among the other petit bourgeois of his town. He’s devoted to his work, his dogs, and the time he gets to spend with his daughter Alida. But Marcello lives a life of quiet desperation – he scrounges for money and human interaction. He sells cocaine to supplement his income and sometimes helps his best friend – former boxer and snarling mongrel Simone – run robberies. Every bit the dog’s body, the eager-to-please Marcello is dwarfed by the brainless Simone in stature and power, and sticks by this thug even during times of cruelty and extreme violence. Marcello ultimately takes the fall for Simone after a robbery in the very neighbourhood he’s worked so hard to establish himself in, but when Simone fails to return his loyalty, the much-maligned Marcello finally decides to bite back.

“Never snitch on your mates” is an ethic most of us grew up with, and to some extent grew out of. Loyalty is important – but it’s not worth hurting yourself or others you love in its pursuit. But what if friendship is the only thing you have? What about if you have little in the way of money, family and love? Suddenly loyalty becomes a driving force for your behaviour, with friendship your only real possession. Marcello learns the hard way that his undying commitment to his best mate is not reciprocated, and the consequences are disastrous. What unfolds is a bloody mess – but does the lapdog Marcello ever grow out of his need for validation and acceptance?

Dogman is a real achievement – its gritty beauty and spectacular cinematography in the run-down wastelands of peasant-class Italy is a shock to the senses as we feel our way into Marcello’s cold, lonely life. The setting is no Amalfi Coast or tourist trap of Florence – this environment is unforgiving and unglazed. Even Marcello’s dog grooming business is no parlour for pampered pooches – it’s comprised entirely of cold metal, industrial cages, and chains with locks.

This is a film showcasing some incredible character acting; the role of Marcello is embodied with stunning dedication by Marcello Fonte – so it comes no surprise he won Best Actor at Cannes for Dogman. His extreme expressions and vulnerability receive both our sympathy and distaste for his sycophancy. Morphing from black comedy to tragi-comedy, Dogman is tense and dark, playing with brutality, and leaves the audience tense and gripped as we bemoan all of Marcello’s missteps and fatal flaws. Marcello is essentially a good person – we see this in his fatherly devotion to his daughter and his soft-heartedness with canines of all shapes and sizes – yet he is so morally flawed by his own whimpering weakness. Even when Marcello finally – as Simone taunts him – grows a pair of balls, he exerts his newfound courage in a foolish way that ultimately harms himself.

Amber Wilson @ambervwilson