Italy is a culture that pushes macho to the extreme (that’s essentially what the Mafia is), but Marcello (Marcello Fonte), the hero of Matteo Garrone’s “Dogman,” is one of those Italian men who’s so harmless he’s cuddly. Short and stooped, with an oblong head and droopy-lidded big eyes that look out at the world with pleading innocence, he’s like Michael Corleone reincarnated as a depressed puppy. Even Fredo could stomp this guy.
Marcello owns and runs a dog-grooming parlor along a ratty stretch of beach town in Southern Italy that’s so desolate it looks like a bomb hit it and left the buildings standing. You wonder how anyone could sustain a business there — but, in fact, there’s a little community, made up mostly of the men who work at the local trattoria and the cash-for-gold pawn shop next to Marcello’s canine parlor, which is called Dogman. Everyone hangs out, but it’s not all buddy-buddy.
There are fights, little simmering vendettas, and a hint of bottom-feeder Mob influence. Marcello seems out of place, like a Roberto Benigni character — or maybe (since he’s too earnest to really be a clown) the contempo version of a De Sica everyman. Divorced, with a daughter of around nine (Alida Baldari Calabria) to whom he’s devoted (they like scuba diving), Marcello looks like someone whose saintly-servile wallflower decency might stand in for all of us.
Garrone is the director of “Gomorrah” (has it really been 10 years since it premiered at Cannes?), and that was a new and altogether electrifying kind of Mob movie, about the intricate ways that the underworld has its meathooks in the mainstream of Italian life. For a while, “Dogman” seems like a cousin to “Gomorrah,” or maybe an anecdotal offshoot of it. This one, too, is about the interface of civility and savagery.
Marcello is friendly, in a Chihuahua-and-the-pit-bull way, with Simone, a brute so thuggishly blunted he makes Gerard Butler look sensitive. As played by Edoardo Pesce, with a wrestler’s neck and a sociopath’s glint of indifference, Simone is a hulk, a human wrecking ball, a ruined force of nature. He seems mobbed up, except that he’s reckless even by Italy’s disorganized standards of organized crime.
The first sign that there might be more to Marcello than we think comes when he sells a packet of cocaine to Simone on the side. The first sign that Simone has no code even for a hooligan is when he insists on doing lines in Marcello’s shop, even though Marcello has told him to leave because his daughter is there.
Simone keeps coming around, pushing for more coke, which Marcello has to go out and procure for him. When a dealer explodes at Simone for owing him 5,000 euro, Simone has one reaction: He beats him to a pulp. (And the dealer is a bruiser.) So when he tells poor Marcello that he wants to poke a hole through the wall of his shop to commit a robbery, and Marcello says no, he won’t do it, then caves in, we’re watching what happens when a timid but good man draws a squirmy line in the sand, only to see that line dissolve.
The cops come the next day and take Marcello away. They say: Sign this paper that fingers Simone, and you’ll go free; otherwise, you’ll go to jail. Marcello protests — if he’s behind bars, who will take care of his daughter? In the end, however, he refuses to sign; he protects Simone. Is it out of fear? Honor? A whim of stubborn pride? Or could it still be friendship? From that moment, nothing in “Dogman” entirely makes sense. It becomes the fable of a weak man who turns himself into a badass, but it sacrifices emotional reality to achieve that transformation.
We cut to one year later. Marcello has gotten out of prison, and looks fine: hale and hearty, and he hasn’t lost so much as a tooth. Yet the film has no interest in telling us how he survived. It simply presents him as a wimp reborn. Marcello finds Simone again and reels him in (a process that involves smashing his motorbike, to make the re-bonding look like something other than the trap it is). Yet what about his daughter? Marcello stops prioritizing her, and from all that we’ve seen that doesn’t track in the least. She would dictate his every action. (It’s the filmmaker who forgets about her.)
The title of “Dogman” doesn’t just refer to Marcello’s shop. It’s about how Marcello, after taming all those gnashing barking dogs he has to groom, turns into a big dog himself. Fonte, it must be said, gives an expert performance as a saintly scamp who “blooms” into a butterfly of vengeance. I might have bought what he’s doing in a different film, but the one that Garrone has made strains too hard to have it both ways. It’s the tale of an innocent who absorbs evil and learns how to use it but stays innocent all the same.