Review: Matteo Garrone’s Dogman Lives and Dies by Metaphoric Exaggeration

The film only succeeds at evoking a firm sense of place and an accompanying air of alluring grotesquerie.

Photo: Magnolia Pictures

In the neorealist classic Umberto D., Vittorio De Sica summed up the sorry state of post-war Italy through an act of simple, poignant allegory, joining the mythic with the mundane. As the eponymous pensioner struggles to hold onto his pride in the face of mounting poverty, his entire quest becomes subsumed into the fate of his tiny mutt, a sentimental gesture that mirrors the film’s own attempt to encapsulate economic humanism within what might otherwise seem like maudlin melodrama. In Dogman, Matteo Garrone attempts a similar high-wire act to far lesser effect: His pitiful protagonist also bears a heavy metaphoric burden, but the pathos this time serves to conceal a potent dose of poison.

This doe-eyed flatterer is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a shameless toady whose wretched demeanor is easy to empathize with but also difficult to stomach. Ensconced in a murky dog-grooming shop that looks more like a torture chamber, Marcello primps and preens a procession of furry canines, some of whom he exhibits in local dog shows. The gaudy pageantry of these contests is echoed by the film’s larger setting, a crumbling Neapolitan village whose main square suggests a broad proscenium stage. Marcello envisions himself as a central player in the community’s everyday drama—the ordinary guy everybody likes—cadging some favors, offering others in return, and dealing a little coke when necessary.

His most frequently encountered acquaintance is Simo (Edoardo Pesce), a hulking brute who’s basically destructiveness personified, ambling around in a substance-addled haze, tearing gambling machines apart with his bare hands. No one else in town can tolerate him, but in his desperate drive for adoration, Marcello continues to stick by Simo’s side, absorbing the man’s abuse. The two form an uneasy odd couple: Igor and Frankenstein’s monster, with no doctor to balance out the arrangement. Aside from an ineffectual business council, the only discernible voice of authority is the local police, whose prime function is to swoop in once the situation is past remedying, trying to turn one pathetic lowlife against the other.

Garrone’s presentation of Marcello appears fond at the start, but as the plot peels away his surface pleasantries, something darker is revealed at his core. A symbolic extension of the animals he cares for, Marcello is himself depicted in dog-like fashion, a slavish lickspittle who’ll do whatever it takes to receive recognition. Beyond the punning title, these parallels are enforced through a few key visual cues, most notably after he finally lashes back at Simo, who physically dominates the smaller man, holding his nose in his mistake. With this aesthetic gambit in mind, the council meetings and intramural soccer matches seem less like generic local color than ingrained evidence of a pack mentality, confirming a pecking order in which the weakest cling to the strongest for protection and reflective might.

Yet the fact that Dogman sustains a coherent symbolic through line doesn’t justify its inert, often-ponderous method of dispensing this allegory. Whether viewed as a parable for Italy’s current dalliance with far-right populism or just a caustic character study, the film only succeeds within a few narrow parameters, evoking a firm sense of place and an accompanying air of alluring grotesquerie. Fonte’s performance is compelling, but the story he inhabits isn’t developed enough to adequately accommodate the character’s clammy charm. Like one of the segments from Garrone’s Gomorrah or Tale of Tales spun off on its own, this nasty little fable feels misbegotten in isolation, and provides no stylistic or dramatic rationale for its spindly construction. As with Reality, which attempted a slapdash update of Fellini for the reality-TV era, the result is an interesting seed of an idea that fails to completely germinate.

 Cast: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi, Aniello Arena, Mirko Frezza  Director: Matteo Garrone  Screenwriter: Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso, Matteo Garrone  Distributor: Magnolia Pictures  Running Time: 103 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2018  Buy: Video

Jesse Cataldo

Jesse Cataldo hails from Brooklyn, where he spends his time writing all kinds of things, preparing elaborate sandwiches, and hopelessly trying to whittle down his Netflix queue.

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