Much has happened since 2002, when Matteo Garrone took The Embalmer to the Quinzaine and initiated the shift towards the world of crime that would later define his career with Gomorrah. He progressively loosened up on the hyper-rigidity of his formalism, which had been especially evident in his previous film Primo Amore, and he embraced a rounder, more emotional brand of filmmaking of larger scope and based on the discovery and assembly of unique faces and places. This in turn led to his pioneering the use of a certain type of location – the other-wordly, dilapidated architectural erosion of a failed residential vision from the past – that has since become a shorthand for mafia-infested liminal territories in Italian cinema and TV. Sixteen years later everybody else is doing it but Garrone doesn’t care – he’s still confidently going back to Castel Volturno, Villaggio Coppola and Pinetamare for a film that plays like a bookend/mirror version of The Embalmer.
Not only is Dogman a throwback to the kind of micro-narrative he excels at (which is why the larger canvas of Gomorrah was such a shock at the time), but it is built on a clever twist of The Embalmer’s premise. Two men in a deceptively co-dependent relationship, plainly illuminated by a peculiar professional talent. There, the preservation of dead bodies informed the attraction that Peppino felt for the immaculate beauty of Valerio. Here, the way Marcello takes care of dogs (by babysitting, cleaning and grooming them) invites interpretations of his bond with Simone, a local thug who obeys no one but his own bursts of irrational rage.
Marcello, defined by his diminutive frame and a fundamentally sweet disposition (his default mode of interaction with animals and kids alike is an enthusiastic greeting of ‘amore!’) clearly prizes the approval of others; and only people like him understand the talent it takes to dance around the whims of a bully while completely avoiding any form of conflict. To him, Simone is simultaneously a torturer, a dominator, an associate, and kind of a friend too. The psychological push-pull of such a relationship is exquisitely investigated in Dogman, which is a tricky accomplishment since such a rapport only looks clear and simple on the surface. This is where the whole canine frame comes into play as a two-way thing: it’s not just that Simone treats Marcello as his lap dog, cruelly stomping all over him with the most casual disregard, or that Simone is very explicitly portrayed as a dangerous rabid animal that will at some point need to be put down. It’s the interplay and the constant switch between the two, and Garrone gets a lot of visual mileage from it with his blocking and contrasting images (Marcello and Simone, but also Marcello and his dogs, big and small).
After his experimenting in Reality and Tale of Tales, it’s reassuring to see how Garrone can go back to smaller works such as Dogman and completely ace the genre element at their heart (Sorrentino, who for many years was the other half of an uneasy and externally-imposed pairing at the head of a generational shift in Italian cinema, could stand to learn his lesson). Albeit not a defining achievement in his filmography, this is a lean thriller that packs a punch and is thematically rich, in addition to being superbly shot. Way before Gomorrah, Garrone was already paving the way for the reinvention of Italian crime drama; a generation later, he is both reasserting his mastery and incorporating the developments made by younger disciples (Dogman has a script contribution credit for the D’Innocenzo brothers, who recently premiered La Terra dell’Abbastanza at the Panorama sidebar in Berlin).
The previously mentioned curiosity for faces and places that Garrone has carefully honed throughout the years is the biggest reason of his success. In Dogman, not only does he pull off yet another casting marvel for his lead in Marcello Fonte (an underseen character actor with a few screen credits to his name), but chooses just as well among the more popular options: Edoardo Pesce is possibly even more impressive than Fonte in his feral, desperate and aching transformation into the hulking Simone. Viewers who know Pesce from the genial and warm touches he puts even on his portrayal of thugs (as in the TV version of Romanzo Criminale, one of the many offsprings of Garrone’s influential early work), will recoil at the sight of this fascinating beast, whose humanity you can just about glimpse beneath a flood of rage.