For the dog lovers out there, we’re used to watching films
where dogs are part of the main plot, and inevitably, one of the dogs dies to
create some kind of empathetic moment. Fortunately, with Matteo Garrone’s film,
Dogman, we’re spared any canine
deaths. Instead, we’re delivered a tale about a man who has clearly lived his
life under the thumb of bullies and oppressors. That man is Marcello (played by
Marcello Fonte with a Cannes award winning performance), a meek individual who
runs a grooming salon somewhere in downtrodden Italy.
Permeating throughout the town is the stench of the
physically overwhelming Simone (Edoardo Pesce). This is a man who has each
business frightened by the violence he enacts on others just to get his way.
Yet, he isn’t a gangster, or a mob boss, or anything like that – he is simply a
brutish, violent individual who manages to persuade others to do what he wants
through fear. He is so used to getting everything in life, that when he loses
three hundred euros on a gambling machine, he head butts it and drags it
outside, all the while the store owner begs him to not do so, and eventually
relents and gives him his money back just so he doesn’t ruin the shop any
further. This is a world that carries no repercussions for Simone’s actions,
and that suits Simone just fine.
However, in between running his humble dog grooming salon,
Marcello also provides Simone with cocaine. The relationship that Marcello and
Simone have is one that thrives on oppression – only Simone is benefitting from
the relationship, all the while Marcello misunderstands the connection the two
have as some kind of friendship. To be clear, Marcello never outwardly appears
to consider Simone a friend, per say, but more a relationship where he has been
bullied in life for so long that he finds some kind of comfort or normalcy in
this kind of bond. The relationship Marcello has with his daughter feels
entirely vacant, and even more so with her mother. The few times they do spend
together, it’s spent diving in an ocean that is cloudy.
Marcello is a quiet individual who merely wants to spend
time with his dogs, and also his daughter whom he sees every so often, but
given his timid nature, he struggles to stand up for himself. He is not a young
man, and it’s obvious that it’s taken him a long time to build (what he
considers) strong friendships with the people who live in the town. So, when
Simone pushes him into a difficult position that has a logical out, Marcello
follows the path he is most familiar with – namely, bending to the force of
Matteo Garone’s direction is at once both subtle and
extremely heavy handed. He wants you to know the brutality of Simone, but also
wants you to empathise wholeheartedly with Marcello. These two things aren’t
mutually exclusive – one doesn’t exist without the other. Yet, Marcello’s
weakness is often too on the nose – we naturally empathise with him, and the
relationship he has with the dogs is nice, but there’s simply not enough life
given to him as a character. Which, admittedly, is an exceptionally difficult
aspect of delivering a narrative where the lead character has been
(essentially) beaten into submission their whole life, and we’re meeting them
at a point where the bullying has shaped them into a person they never imagined
they would be. How do you create an empathetic, full character out of someone
who is, at best, only half of who they should be?
I can relate to the character of Marcello because I know
what life is like growing up having been bullied. I can empathise with the fear
of another beating causing you to do things you would never morally or
logically do otherwise. I can also understand and empathise with the comfort
that spending time working with dogs will bring. But, I fear that for many
viewers, the exceptionally uncomfortable mire of unease that Marcello lives
with will be something that is either too foreign for them to comprehend, or
simply too dark for them to willingly engage with. There is no lightness in
Marcello’s world, but that doesn’t mean to say that he is not a happy
individual. He has been through so much pain growing up that he has learned to
find some kind of abstract comfort in it, and in turn, has found the small
moments of positivity that keep his days going forward. He is not depressed, he
is simply weathered by life and yearning for some kind of connectivity with the
people around him.
And that in itself is the most depressing aspect of Dogman. Marcello is simply a man who
wants to connect with other people, yet, because of his introverted nature and
his inability to articulate what he wants, he simply cannot.
I like this film, I appreciate what Matteo Garrone does with
the character of Marcello. Garone is a curious filmmaker, one who explores
Italian life through lenses that we’re not usually privy to from Italian
cinema. Yes, his crime epic, Gomorrah,
was a modern look at Italian gangsters, but it felt different and new. Dogman is equally different, yet no less
critical of Italian life. Is Garone suggesting that Simone is the brutish
manifestation of all the crime bosses that have come before in Italy, their
presence still looming large over life across the land? Which would naturally
make Marcello the submissive townsperson beaten into submission over decades by
an unavoidable hand that hangs over all?
I feel I’m stretching here, but it’s mostly because I’m
looking for more than what is presented. I appreciated my time with Dogman, particularly the brilliant
performance from Marcello Fonte, but the murkiness of the world leaves a little
too much unexplored. But, when the conclusion rolls around, I felt as lonely
and longing for some kind of connection as Marcello did. Maybe that’s the
point? At which, if it is, then it leaves me pondering a question I have asked
myself many times before – if a films intention is to leave you feeling
discontent and disconnected, and it manages to create these uncomfortable
feelings for you, then has it succeeded? And, if it has succeeded, does that
make it a good film? Does a film that works to make you feel negative feelings
– and not in a ‘lesson learned’ kind of way, as many holocaust films leave you
feeling – become a good film for having done so? Obviously, there are more
contributing factors to a films quality than what the emotion you are left with
at the end, but it is a question that is worth rolling around in your mind.
achieves what it intends to do, but that in itself isn’t enough.
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