Mention Italy and most of us think of Rome, Florence or Venice – cities rich in antiquities, overrun by tourists. Villaggio Coppola, near Castel Volturno – the setting of Matteo Garrone’s Dogman – is not that sort of place. A failed resort town north of Naples, it has become a desolate camp for African refugees and impoverished Italians.
Garrone hasn’t chosen Villaggio Coppola to draw attention to the refugee problem – he doesn’t even identify the town – but to capture an atmosphere of terminal decay. It’s a depressing sight but Marcello (Marcello Fonte), who runs a dog parlour seems to be always cheerful. A small, stooped figure with an ugly-interesting face, Marcello has a special affinity with canines, even the largest and most dangerous breeds. He’s part of a group of shopkeepers who meet every day in the local cafe, and kick a soccer ball in the evenings. As this is southern Italy he has a little side business supplying cocaine.
Marcello is separated from his wife, but remains a devoted father who looks forward to visits from his small daughter, Alina. His greatest treat is to take her scuba diving, but it’s a struggle to save enough money for such trips.
This modest, hard-working routine suits Marcello well enough, but there is a problem in the shape of Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a violent, hulking thug who has made himself the terror of the neighbourhood. The story begins with Simone demanding that Marcello give him some coke, although payment doesn’t play much part in the transaction. Simone’s philosophy is that might is right. We watch him threatening the owner of the local game parlour, and punching the café owner.
The shopkeepers think it would be best to pay some gangsters to quietly eliminate the brute, but Marcello tries to make himself agreeable to Simone, as if he recognised a savage mastiff that might be tamed wth a little kindness. His reward is to be dragged along to drive a getaway car while Simone and a mate rob an apartment. Next he is forced to take Simone to the cocaine suppliers, where a violent scuffle ensues. When Simone brings him along to a nightclub, Marcello stands with a foolish grin, as if he is sampling a glamorous new lifestyle.
The relationship between the big man and the little man is strictly one-way. Marcello will continually attempt to pacify his unruly friend, although he can see it’s leading to disaster. He even saves Simone’s life when he gets shot. By this stage the entire audience is silently begging him to leave the bastard bleeding by the side of the road.
Marcello is repaid for his kindness by being pushed into ever more difficult positions by Simone, who is incapable of caring for anyone but himself. Inevitably Marcello is made to suffer for Simone’s crimes, putting his hard-won social status on the line. It often seems as if Marcello must be descended from those old Christian martyrs, so readily does he absorb punishment and humiliation. He is one of life’s victims, but when he finally he reaches his limit and strikes back, it’s only to seal his own doom more completely.
It’s obvious that Marcello the dogman is not just the keeper of a pooch parlour, he has a full set of dog-like instincts. He loves to be part of the pack, although he recognises his lowly status. He views Simone as top dog, and remains as loyal as any hound, regardlesss of the cruelties and indignities he is obliged to endure.
There’s a parable in this story about the dangers of succumbing to the demands of power, even when you know it’s wrong. One thinks of the new wave of political strongmen who strut the world stage nowadays, each of them as egocentric and insensitive as Simone.
Nevertheless, it would be straining matters to keep looking for a political metaphor in a film that is so much about the psychology of one character. Marcello is a descendent of Dostoevsky’s underground man who revels in his own lowly status. He’s the classic ‘little man’ that Hans Fallada identifed in the Weimar era, but too passive to be a Charlie Chaplin.
Compassionate and sensitive (especially with dogs and his daughter), Marcello is strangely detached from events as they unfold. He doesn’t want to drive a getaway car for Simone, but he does anyway. He sees danger ahead, but is powerless to turn aside.
Marcello Fonte received the Best Actor Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival for this role, and rightly so. It’s a masterclass in ambiguity, as all Marcello’s qualities could also be seen as weaknessesses. His lack of will-power is pathetic and frustrating, but he continues to command our sympathy. We’re never quite able to get beneath the dogman’s skin.
The other star of this film is the relentless sense of squalor created by Garrone and cinematographer, Nicolai Brüel. One wonders how people who live in this concrete wasteland could care less about how their dogs are groomed. Perhaps in a place in which humanity has become thoroughly bestial it’s left to the dogs to keep up appearances.
Directed by Matteo Garrone
Written by Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso
Starring Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi, Francesco Acquaroli, Gianluca Gobbi, Alida Baldari Calabria, Laura Pizzirani, Giancarlo Porcacchia
Italy/France, rated MA15+, 103 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 31 August, 2019