A tragic tale of loneliness, outreach and morality from the director of the brutal crime drama Gomorra and baroque adult fairy-tale anthology Tale of Tales, Dogman plays out almost like one of von Trier’s ‘Golden Heart’ films, following a character almost pathologically incapable of a selfish act and perpetually misunderstood and mistreated by those around him. This character is Marcello, a small, lonely, kind-hearted dog groomer and divorced father, constantly pushed around by Simoncino a local petty criminal and in so doing earning himself the contempt of his fellow shopkeepers for his spineless capitulation.
Marcello is a heartbreaking figure, sweet-natured and totally passive, he clings pitifully to any hint of affection, even coming from a brute like Simoncino. One scene where Simoncino takes him to a strip club and in one genuine act of friendship, buys him a dance is both sweet and sad, seeing how despite his discomfort, Marcello is grateful to be near a beautiful woman, and more so, that someone is doing something for him, giving him a taste of the gangster lifestyle that he is so obviously incapable of living.
Marcello Fonte won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance and it’s easy to see why, similarly to the protagonist of 2015’s Son of Saul, Geza Rohring, Fonte’s face regularly fills the screen as the camera inspects him and these shots bring the film some of its best moments. With a fixed ingratiating smile when around others and on the brink of tears when alone or cornered, it’s a performance could well have tipped over into caricature but it’s so subtly played and directed that it remains effective and un-manipulative.
The first rule of writing a sympathetic main character is to show them doing what they love, as audiences we connect to a person’s passions and Marcello’s passion is caring for dogs, which feeds perfectly into the second rule: have them save an animal, and this film contains one of the best examples of this in a scene where Marcello risks jail to save a chihuahua from a freezer. It’s impossible not to feel for Marcello and it’s one of those movies where you just wish the movie would give its main character a break. The trailers make it out to be a dark comedy, but every remotely funny moment made it into the trailer, the film itself is relentlessly downbeat and often brutal with only occasional sweet moments, mostly involving his young daughter for whom he shares custody with a barely glimpsed mother.
Sadly, although the film succeeds as a moving and powerful character piece, its effectiveness is let down by a story that lacks drive and stumbles blindly to find a conclusion in a messy and confused third act that feels both predictable and out of character. It’s certainly worth a watch though and just to reassure dog lovers, the dogs are cute and no lasting harm comes to them.