The press notes for Matteo Garrone’s Dogman place the movie in a seaside village near a city. But it’s certainly not the seaside village you have in your head at this very moment. This place looks like a wasteland, with no view of the sea, and a few battered apartment blocks clustered together. There aren’t many people around, and when a few do gather, it’s hard to figure where they come from.
There’s a line of low-slung mostly empty spaces that could be shops. The most prominent bears the sign “Dogman,” where sad sack Marcello (Marcello Fonte) runs a dog grooming service. He’s a hapless looking man, with a sloping forehead, who shifts from foot to foot and nods his head when he talks to people. He often steps backward, as if he’s in retreat.
The film opens on a snarling dog with a heavy chain around its neck, standing in a metal basin. Marcello can barely get near the dog to wash it, but after a quick fade, Marcello is blow-drying the dog who seems calm and happy to luxuriate in the warm air. So, Marcello has a gentle way with dogs, but you can’t ignore all the other dogs in metal cages in the back of the grubby shop. It’s the kind of jarring, unsettled image that director Matteo Garrone never tries to resolve. You’re stuck with the contradictions.
Marcello is a loving father to his young daughter – they play together and take scuba diving trips. He plays soccer with friends. And he sells cocaine, but apparently to just one customer.
That’s Simone (Edoardo Pesce), the local bully. He’s huge, with a thick neck; he looks like Luca Brazzi, the scary thug from The Godfather. No one has the nerve or the muscle to stand up to Simone, and when Marcello and his buddies sit around together, they talk about how they can’t call the cops, but they know that someone eventually will kill Simone. That talk brings up the maxim of the Russian playwright Chekov – if you show a gun in the first act, it had better go off in the third.
But writer/director Garrone doesn’t take Dogman where you expect. The film’s loaded with mixed tones and wonder about how Marcello will handle Simone as Simone’s demands grow bigger. Simone forces Marcello to help in petty crimes, but his ambitions keep growing. The film mixes locations to show Marcello’s instabilities. From the barren village, the film jumps to a forest which feels magical as people walk their dogs through a maze of tall straight trees. The woods seem to have no connection with the so-called village, and the only recognizable character is Marcello. Marcello with his daughter underwater is also an escape to another temporary reality, where the usual rules don’t apply.
Eventually, Marcello goes for vengeance, but that too feels like a trip to an unfamiliar place. He doesn’t know how to do it. He’s a timid, uncertain man who may be very good with dogs or with his daughter, but he has no feel for confronting or harming other people. It’s too bad, but Marcello is better at backing up than he is at going forward. Yet this is where the disparate elements of the movie snap into place. Foretelling the murder of Simone is a false lead. Dogman is about loneliness more than anything else.
Dogman gains strength and richness as it moves along. At first, it’s thin and you wonder if it’s headed for violence, but over time Marcello grows more complex, and, most of all, the locations themselves take on power. The barren space of the supposed seaside village becomes the space where a nobody tries to find himself and make a statement that will define his life for the better. But there’s no way for that to happen in this dustbin that looks more and more like the grim cityscapes of the great Italian neorealist movies of the 1940s, where possibility is not possible.