BEIRUT: Pets occupy several strategic locations in movies, most serving to tell the audience something about humans. One common cinema trope is that of a character who’s most comfortable around non-human animals because they’re never as diabolical as the human ones.
Marcello, the wiry and wide-eyed figure at the center of Matteo Garrone’s “Dogman,” resembles such a character, though he’s never made to spell out his views on the relative merits of human and non-human creatures. Garrone’s story unfolds to reveal an ecology of dominance and subservience that, at once comic and diabolic, is far more complex than your average pet movie.
The film’s title echoes the name of Marcello’s dog-grooming business and “Dogman” opens to find Marcello (Marcello Fonte) at work.
It’s classic comedy. Using a long-handled broom, the small man labors to bathe a hostile pit bull, beginning at its rear end. The sweet nothings he mutters to reassure the beast play in counterpoint to the dog’s menacing growls, devolving to a tug of war when it grasps the broom in its jaws. The scene jumps forward to show Marcello giving the, now pliable, canine a blow dry.
Scenes of Marcello working on his dogs are (thanks to Fonte’s performance) a reliable comic motif in the film, but the pit bull vignette illustrates a preliminary moral - the sort of thing you might find prefacing a fable - flattery, it seems, can pacify even the most savage beast.
The film is located not far from Naples, in a backwater seaside community in Italy’s Campania region. Its establishing shot frames an empty beachfront playground and the camera returns to precisely the same frame at story’s end.
Marcello’s is the last shop in a miserable-looking strip mall whose businesses include a goldsmith next door and a video game arcade. These merchants behave like chums, regularly eating supper together at the arcade’s restaurant and playing nighttime football matches.
It’s during one pre-match supper that the audience meets Marcello’s young daughter Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), who lives with her mother. Her father happily shares his work with Alida as well as a surprising love of scuba diving - holding hands on the seabed, staring up through their bubbles at the life above.
At first Marcello seems an amusing variation on the caricature of an idiot savant. Then, while he’s showing his daughter how to trim the dreadlocks of someone’s hulking canine, Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a thug with an expensive coke habit, turns up at his shop demanding a fix.
Remarkably the dog groomer quickly sorts it out, asking only that Simone leave immediately, so he can insulate his child from his sordid commerce. Shrugging off Marcello’s demand, the thug snorts the coke in the toilet.
Marcello supplies blow to his fellow merchants too, introducing a wrinkle to the caricature that’s elaborated as we see that he doesn’t seem to discriminate between the friendship of his footballing fellow merchants and Simone - whose casual thuggery taxes the shopkeepers’ patience.
The plot of “Dogman” follows how the contradictions in Marcello’s relationship to Simone, his community and his daughter coil, tighten and snap.
“Dogman” premiered at Cannes in 2018, where Marcello Fonte walked away with the best actor prize. The film has won bushels of prizes since then and it had its Beirut debut this week during the European Film Festival. When the festivities are done, it will enjoy a limited release at Metropolis-Sofil.
Matteo Garrone is one of a handful of writer-directors who’ve led a low-key Italian cinema renaissance, filmmakers whose work frames the cut-and-thrust of the country’s communal life in fresh and entertaining terms.
While Paolo Sorrentino’s sumptuous and bemused “Il Divo,” 2008, examined political life in the interim between Eurocommunism and Berlusconi from the perspective of political insider Giulio Andreotti, Garrone’s 2008 “Gomorrah” took up that much-gnawed chestnut of Italian narrative, organized crime, specifically the grassroots allure of Napoli’s Camorra.
“Dogman” returns to this familiar ground of criminality and community. Beautifully shot, written and acted, the film elegantly hopscotches from comedy to low-key drama, from visceral violence to gonzo humanity. The landscape may be familiar but this story is, like Fonte’s performance, quite fresh - remarkably so, given that the tale’s been plucked from news headlines.
Set in a territory known for violence, the film proves to be about something more universal - the lengths to which an individual will go to belong someplace. By the time Marcello staggers to the end of the obstacle course Garrone and his collaborators have written for him, he’s left standing in that once-empty beachfront playground, quite alone.
“Dogman” will start a limited release at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil in Feb. 7.
For more information, see https://www.metropoliscinema.net.