Matteo Garrone likes to peel back Italy’s skin to expose what writhes beneath. The director’s earlier breakout film Gomorrah (2008), an unforgettable sprawling epic, explores the Camorrah crime syndicate from its bottom-feeding wannabes to its corrupt political élite. Reality (2013), a satirical tale of a fishmonger going to desperate lengths to become a reality-television star, is a nod to Silvio Berlusconi’s amoral regime and surreal legacy. In these films, as well as others in his oeuvre, Garrone dissects morality and power, using the slow ruination of the quasi-innocent to evoke the grisly reality of Italy’s underbelly.
Dogman, his latest film, opens with bared teeth. A snarling white pit bull, straining against a heavy chain around its neck, bites at the camera. Trying to soothe it, crooning ‘Sweetie’ as he washes its muscular back with a rag, is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a meek but caring man who runs a dog-grooming parlour in the middle of town. Everyone seems to know everyone here, and Marcello is well liked. Aspiring to be decent, he strives to uphold his reputation as a hard-working and dependable man. He chews the fat at a small diner, plays soccer at night with local men, and adores his young daughter, Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria). Taking breaks from the salon to take her on vacations, he scuba-dives with her. They hold hands among schools of fish.
He also sells cocaine, a side hustle that has lured the business of the baleful Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a volatile, scar-ridden, boxer-nosed gangster who plagues both Marcello and the townsfolk. Simoncino does what he wants. He turns up unannounced at the parlour for a bump, doesn’t pay, snorts it in the bathroom, and ignores Marcello’s pleas to hide it from Alida. When he shatters a slot machine with his head and breaks the nose of a man at the diner, the locals conspire to have him killed. Simoncino, not so much persuading Marcello as physically forcing him, embroils him in violence and deception. Despite this, the naïve Marcello remains a sort of friend to him. He defends Simoncino, more than once saves his life, parties with him, and is seemingly attracted to the doors he opens and the power, however threatening, that he holds. However, the relationship soon becomes unstable, and a series of events causes Marcello to face the ire of the townsfolk and a conflict that threatens to consume him.