They still eat spaghetti in Italia. And they still make Westerns, though not like in the old “spaghetti Western” days — not with horses, six guns and Sergio Leone theme songs.
“Dogman” is a grim to the point of bleak tale of Italy built on classic Western tropes. A little man is beaten down by the bully who terrorizes his town, ostracized, humiliated. In the Old West, Marcello (Marcello Fonte) would have gotten his gun. What remedies does a man of modern Italy have? Italian justice? That’s an punchline laughed at the world over.
The director of director of “Gomorrah” and “Tale of Tales” (Matteo Garrone) paints a frustrating, harrowing portrait of violent intimidation and the price one pays living under it. We can sense what’s coming, but there’s no guarantee Garrone will give it to us.
Marcello is homely, short, nasal-voiced and vulpine, a 30something dog sitter, dog groomer and animal lover.
“Dogman” is the name of the window of his shop of this run-down coastal town (Castel Volturno, Villaggio Coppola, Caserta). And as we watch his coo and calm a vicious and perhaps frightened pit bull into accepting a bath, it seems apt.
He whistles “Amore!” (“sweetie pie”) at every dog he sees and dotes over the one he lives with and the dogs in his care.
“Everyone in the neighborhood likes me,” he says. “That’s important to me.”
Yeah, he’s a pushover. The other shopkeepers, who play soccer with him, tolerate him but have limits to the respect they give him. He doesn’t merit a second thought.
His sweet little girl (Alida Baldari Calabria) helps dad with his grooming business, feeds him pointers at groomer contests, and loves scuba diving. Divorced dad lets her decide what expensive diving location he must pay for next.
Dog boarding and dog grooming won’t be enough for the Maldives. It’s a good thing he deals a little coke on the side.
But Marcello, like everyone else here, lives under a cloud, a hulking impulsive brute named Simone (Edoardo Pesce, perfectly cast as a brooding behemoth). And the little man’s years of placating the town’s “Mad Dog” with arm-twisted “favors,” saying “Yes” after insisting, pleading and begging to say “No,” and with cocaine, haven’t exactly paid off.
He’s still bullied into driving Simone and a pal to a robbery, still forced to surrender cocaine whenever Simone insists he give it up.
Marcello may realize he’s a victim, but he’s slow to embrace how ridiculous and small Simone makes him. When his soccer buddies suggest hiring somebody to take care of this “problem,” he’s silent. When Simone flips out on his coke supplier, Marcello is complicit. When Simone is hurt, Marcello tends to him.
That’s got to be worth something, right? He’s a “friend,” right?
Garrone makes wonderful use of his diminutive leading man (best known for the film “Asino vola”), and Fonte manages to be both empathetic and pathetic here. The director/co-writer sketches in the moral code of this story in shades of grey. Yes, Marcello cowers. He tries to do the right thing, saving a dog that the robbers joke about stuffing in a freezer.
But unlike your classic Western “hero,” Marcello has few options and no simplistic recourse at his disposal. This is what a kind man trapped on the horns of this ancient dilemma in modern times looks like — lost.
Garrone makes us see that when head-butting might exists without legal restraint, might makes right. It’s not cowardice if you have know for a fact and have plenty of evidence that you’re facing physical injury or death for resisting.
The town has a stark, worn beauty about it — half-abandoned boats, apartment blocks that haven’t been maintained, living space without landscaping or decorating.
And trapped within it, losing his place within it with every shove against the wall, every thuggish demand, is a tiny, simple man with ever-diminishing options.
MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic violence, drug abuse
Cast: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Adamo Dionisi, Alida Baldari Calabria
Credits:Directed by Matteo Garrone, script by Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone and Massimo Gaudioso. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:43