Despite it being midday and my operating on barely six hours of sleep when my screening took place – which has been a troublesome recipe for my attempts to stay engaged with certain films through no fault of their own across the Festival, believe me – Matteo Garrone’s Dogman utterly gripped me from start to finish. Garrone’s latest is an intense and frequently painful-to-watch abuse drama centred around one of the year’s best performances by Marcello Fonte. He plays Marcello, a dog groomer and occasional vet who lives a largely peaceful and content life in a poor and sparsely-populated Italian town. He’s known and well-liked by all the other business owners, a doting father to his young daughter (Alida Baldari Calabria) whom he shares custody over, and feels a kind of kinship with dogs both in his care and in general. In a way, Marcello is rather like a small dog: affable, sweet-faced, and craving everyone’s love and respect whilst trying to stay away from any trouble that may disturb that order.
Unfortunately, trouble finds Marcello in the shape of local thug Simone (Edoardo Pesce). In order to earn some extra money, since Dogman (his shop) sees enough business to get by but not much more, Marcello also deals small-time amounts of cocaine and Simone is a reckless addict to the stuff. He’s forceful, imposing, extremely ill-tempered, vindictive and, when he becomes so much of a thorn in everyone’s side that the rest of the business owners – who effectively operate like a closed-off mafia group – decide to try a permanent solution to the problem, surprisingly difficult to kill. He is, to simplify, a bully. Someone who uses his size and strength to pick on and break those obviously weaker than him for the powerful thrill it gives him before discarding his victims from his mind entirely once their use has dried up. So, naturally, Simone gloms on to Marcello, his one source of cocaine since he’s in to the town’s other dealers for large sums of cash he has no intention of paying back, and proceeds to take full advantage of Marcello’s goodness and timid nature.
Dogman is a simple film, one that rides its thematic hook – what do you think happens when a mad dog backs a little dog into a corner and won’t stop poking – for all that it’s worth. But where I docked a film like Styx points for being too one-note and unsubtle in its thematic work, Dogman turns that simplicity into an asset of focus and surprising depth. Fonte is a big, big reason for that, of course. He’s just so earnest and well-intentioned, so inherently likeable and sweet, so charming with eyes that can express exuberance and intimate that he’s been through some stuff in the time before the film starts (Simone has been imposing on Marcello for a while). I could feel the rest of my audience’s collective hearts sink when it’s revealed that he deals coke because we knew that it’s antithetical to a man with the personality of Marcello and wanted him to break free from that cycle. That’s crucial because it informs the tension of the film when things turn especially grim and sour later on, of wanting to see Marcello fight back and assert himself but knowing that he just can’t do so and what the consequences would be if he tried.
Garrone divides the film pretty neatly into two distinct halves, building up to an act (although it’s more accurate to describe it as an inaction) whose consequences ripple throughout the entire close-knit community, and he brings that intensity to the boil with true care and precision. Through his direction, the screenplay (credited to four writers including Garrone himself), and the performances of Fonte and Pesce (not meaning to discredit the latter’s contribution), events gradually but naturally reach a point of no return and resultant reckoning that nonetheless lacks any true catharsis. The scars of abuse don’t simply fade away, nor do the large-scale consequences on the abused’s life. In fact, it can leave one alone with nobody else around to comfort or explain themselves to, as in the devastating pair of final shots – something this year’s Festival has been providing an abundance of to date. Even if the actual confrontation can take things a touch too far in both staging and thematic tying-together, kind of like Xavier Legrand’s Custody did (which I saw at last year’s Festival), it doesn’t detract from Dogman as a whole, not when the rest of the film is this assured and perfectly-pitched.
Also, because I know some of you will ask, there are plenty of Good Boys and Good Girls in this too. Doesn’t exactly counteract the emotional wringer of the film, though.