Dogman (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A grim and gritty tale of a criminal underdog

The hero of “Dogman”, which was recently selected as the Italian entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2019 Academy Awards, is probably one of the most pathetic criminal underdogs I have ever seen from movies. Petite, timid and weak-willed, he is constantly abused and exploited by a bullying guy, and he does not seem to know what to do besides bending to that abusive guy’s will – until he finally comes to decide that enough is enough.

Marcello Fonte, who won the Best Actor prize for his performance here in this film at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, plays Marcello, the owner of a shabby dog grooming shop in a poor neighborhood located in the outskirts of Rome. Although his business does not look that successful, he has a fairly good reputation in his neighborhood as occasionally hanging around with his friends in the neighborhood, and he is happy and excited whenever his ex-wife brings him their young daughter, with whom he sometimes enjoys scuba diving outside the neighborhood.

But it gradually turns out to us that Marcello is not exactly a model citizen. It is apparent that many of his friends are criminals, and we later see him buying drug from one of them not long after they play soccer along with others. Although he does not use drug, he needs it because Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a hulking, aggressive ex-boxer who has been a troublemaker in the neighborhood, demands Marcello to supply drug to him. When Simoncino suddenly comes to Marcello’s shop for drug, Marcello has no choice but to give him what he wants, and he asks Simoncino to go somewhere else as his dear daughter happens to be in the shop, but Simoncino simply ignores his plea and there is nothing Marcello can do about that.

We observe more of this toxic relationship between Marcello and Simoncino. At one night, Simoncino suddenly appears in front of Marcello along with some other guy, and he coerces Marcello to assist him during his latest criminal activity. All Marcello has to do is waiting in his vehicle outside while Simoncino and his accomplice break into an apartment for stealing expensive stuffs, but he come to learn later that Simoncino and his accomplice did something quite cruel to a dog in the apartment, and he later breaks into the apartment by himself later because, as a man who genuinely loves dogs, he cannot possibly ignore what will happen to that dog.

As Simoncino keeps causing troubles around the neighborhood, some of Marcello’s friends become more frustrated and exasperated, and we get an unnerving but amusing moment when these guys seriously discuss about this increasingly annoying matter even while Marcello is right next to them. They talk about whether Simoncino should be eliminated once for all, but nobody is particularly willing to do that dirty job, and one of them suggests that they should just wait because, well, Simoncino has already made lots of enemies in the neighborhood.

While not telling anything to Simoncino, Marcello continues to let himself used by Simoncino as usual. He shows some loyalty when Simoncino is seriously injured at one point, but Simoncino does not show much appreciation to Marcello, and he demands more from Marcello when he comes across another criminal opportunity. Again, Marcello conforms to Simoncino’s demand, and he subsequently pays a big price for that as going down further into more misery and despair.

Although it does not explain a lot about how Marcello came to be associated and stuck with Simoncino, the movie still works a fascinating character study, and Fonte’s understated but haunting performance functions as its compelling human center. Even his character does not say much, we can clearly sense desperation and frustration being accumulated behind his mild, gentle façade, and we cannot help but wonder when he will eventually reach to his breaking point. In opposite to Fonte, Eduardo Pesce is both menacing and despicable, and he and Fonte did a convincing job of conveying to us a long history of abuse and exploitation between their characters.

As slouching to its inevitable ending, the movie becomes a bit too monotonous at times, but it keeps holding our attention via its vivid, realistic atmosphere accompanied with some striking stylish touches. Even when the story becomes darker and more disturbing during its second half, director/co-writer Matteo Garrone, who wrote the screenplay with Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, steadily maintains the cold, detached tone of his film, and his cinematographer Nicolaj Brüel effectively establishes bleak and oppressive mood on the screen while providing a number of impressive moments including a gray long-take scene unfolded outside Marcello’s shop later in the movie.

Like Garron’s previous crime drama film “Gomorrah” (2008), “Dogman” is grim and gritty from the beginning to the end, and it is certainly not something to watch for entertainment, but I observed its wretched hero with interest and fascination at least. Although it did not strike me as much as “Gomorrah” and I occasionally felt impatient with its austere storytelling approach, the movie mostly works thanks to its palpably realistic atmosphere as well as its lead actor’s solid performance, so I recommend it despite some reservation.

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