If it’s true that you can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way they treat animals, then the protagonist of Dogman, Italian director Matteo Garrone’s (Gomorrah) latest exploration of the hyper-masculine world of petty criminals and organised crime, seems like one of the good ones.
Marcello, brilliantly played by Marcello Fonte, is a slight, simple and soft-natured dog groomer who treats the snarling Rottweilers and Pitt Bull Terriers under his care with enormous affection, calling them ‘sweetie’ whilst he clips their nails and gently washes their fur. Marcello’s love for these animals extends so far that in one memorable scene he returns, at considerable risk to himself, to the scene of a crime to save a dog that’s been subjected to a seriously cruel and unusual treatment by one of his associates.
The only thing that means more to Marcello than his canine charges is his young daughter, who he dotes on with a passion that surpasses his affection for his dogs. They enter grooming competitions together, with her gently urging him on and offering advice from the sidelines. He also takes her on lavish scuba diving trips that are clearly well beyond the means of someone in his humble profession. It is, in part, his need to maintain his bond with his daughter in this way that leads him to become trapped in a web of violence that escalates with a brutal inevitability in this visceral and stylish morality tale.
For it turns out that the apparently sweet-natured Marcello has made something of a deal with the devil. His income from his dog grooming business is supplemented by a side-line in cocaine dealing. One of his main clients is Simone, a local criminal and wildly unhinged brute of a man whose short-fused temper is, unsurprisingly, made infinitely worse by his coke habit.
This monster of Marcello’s making has been terrorising the close-knit community of local business owners who Marcello calls his friends (in one early scene Simone smashes a slot machine in with his head then demands 300 euros from the owner for the pleasure), though Marcello remains notably silent on what might be aggravating this behaviour.
Torn between his seemingly pathological desire to be liked and accepted by those around him and his need to maintain his lavish lifestyle, Marcello, wrongly thinking he can predict Simone’s behaviour, makes a fateful decision that severs his ties with this group of friends for good.
With a plot that closely follows an infamous real-life incident, known in Italy as “il Delitto del Canaro” (the Dogman’s Crime), Garrone’s extraordinary film walks an odd but brilliantly effective tightrope between gently heart-warming and intensely gruesome.
Dogman is showing at the Showroom Cinema from Friday the 19th October.