Marcello (Marcello Fonte) lives in a rundown Italian coastal town where he makes a living as a dog groomer for the pets of the locals: no matter how ill-behaved the pooch, he can calm them down with his cooing and petting, and even the fiercest pitbull will succumb to his soothing way with the creatures. Oddly enough, he has a way with getting on with people in much the same manner, his bravest conquest being Simone, an ex-boxer who turned gangster and is now ruling the deprived area with his thuggish bullying. Marcello, however, counts him as a good pal, though that is down to him feeding him a steady diet of cocaine to keep him placated - but for how long?
Matteo Garrone returned to the themes of real life crime for Dogman, as the director had made his name with that style of film, and this was drawn from a genuine case that shocked Italy - and it takes a lot to shock Italy when it comes to crime. He took the basic outline of the news report and adapted it to his own ends, a study of his country's macho culture and how to survive it, the answer to that being you don't, really, you either join the sharks or accept life as a one of the minnows, though there is always the possibility you can end up as one or the other depending on the circumstances you find yourself in, or the company you moved among. Marcello is a minnow.
There's no doubt about Simone being one of the sharks, either, a less sympathetic villain you would be hard-pressed to identify, certainly in the realm of European crime fiction. He has no redeeming features, and even if you think you're in his good books, that's no guarantee he will treat you well, in fact if you're apt to do him favours he will exploit you as far as he can get away with. This is what Marcello discovers to his cost, and it's the threat of violence that Simone is more than capable of following up that keeps the thug at the top of the tree in what is an impoverished community of cinematic appeal, but not somewhere you would choose to live - or spend five minutes in.
That cinematic appeal comes from the picturesque qualities of decay, and the cinematography from Nicolai Brüel contained an absorbingly vivid look that ensured we were compelled to keep watching despite being all too aware this was not going to end well for anyone we saw. Marcello had a Charlie Chaplin-esque personality, as many protagonists in Italian movies did down the decades, yet while Chaplin could get out of the state he was in with a well-placed item of slapstick or simply walking away with a shrug of the shoulders, this little man cannot be so adept at escaping his predicament. For a start, Marcello has a young daughter (Alida Baldara Calabria) with his ex-wife who he cannot abandon, though we are aware the more he courts Simone's attention the more peril both he and his daughter could be in.
With Marcello's fellow small business operators in the area complaining louder and louder about Simone yet powerless to stand up to his barbarism, it is clear something has to give, and that something is our mild-mannered hero. Earlier we have witnessed what a nice man he can be when, after a stint as Simone's getaway driver, he goes back to the scene of the crime to rescue a dog trapped in a freezer, but if this was teaching us anything, it was that no matter how decent and easygoing you were, get pushed too far and everyone has their breaking point. But do you turn your destruction inwards or outwards? Is there a difference? The actual case was one of revolting violence, and Gatteo did not go as far as that, but he did get fairly gruesome nevertheless, a cynical view of what a victim does when they can be victimised no more; his ambiguous concluding sequence indicated what isolation results once you give in to your worst impulses. The difference was, Simone didn't give a shit, and poor old Marcello had his compassion to damn him since he had further to tumble into Hell. Music by Michele Braga.
[Curzon's DVD includes a Q&A with director and star (and interpreter). Other extras are a storyboard, deleted scenes and the trailer.]