What happens if you stand up to a dangerous bully who is also a hardened criminal ?  You can get killed. Cinema crashes to a stop and real life slams in.

Director Matteo Garrone, who de-glamourized the mafia world with his famous ‘Gomorrah’ ( 2008 ) with the dreary sun of everyday reality and real-time captures, has another cold splash lined up here. Haven’t yet gone to Italy and dreaming of lush continental vistas ? The slice of Rome you see here – dilapidated, scrappy, water-logged – will make you think it is a developing country but this is actually the developing side of Italy.

Marcello (embodied by Marcello Fonte) is a man in his thirties - the eponymous ‘Dogman’. He runs a small shop where he grooms other people’s dogs. The locale is the town’s coastal boondocks, with a shortage of cash gnawing at the moth-eaten buildings. We see that he is quite busy, with enough clients and a sincere commitment to his craft. There’s a superb shot of a Great Dane calmly reposed on the grooming table and looking at Marcello as he manicures its paws. The regal dog suddenly flips its paws from one to another in Marcello’s clipper-laden hands and he looks at the dog in surprise and issues a reflex verbalization, almost as if to say “ What gives, dude ?!  Are you okay ?  Did something upset you ? “  

Marcello is small-built and wiry, with a face that could do handy duty for one of an idiot. His voice is of the flat, guttural kind. We do not see his partner – they are likely separated and his kid daughter periodically visits him. The fact that he dotes on her is subtly shown – there’s an underwater shot of father and daughter exploring the netherworld, and later on board the motorboat, they sit holding each other, blanket wrapped around them, as a static shot elegantly captures their togetherness. Marcello does not mind canine behaviour that would alarm most of us. He sits down for dinner in front of TV in his cramped living room, trying to resist a dog which wants to partake of the biped’s victuals. Emboldened, in a single charge, it wolfs down a lion’s share of what’s on the plate. Marcello is unperturbed – he scoops up what’s remaining, eats and watches the show. It must be a good show.

This cozy state of affairs is ruptured by the danger looming from the story’s villain – the big-built bastard Simone ( Edoardo Pesce ). He terrorizes the entire area including the cluster of shops around Marcello’s, an id without ego or super-ego, stealing with abandon, bashing up people and running amok. Another hitch in the craw is that Marcello, otherwise sensible, has been foolish enough to tolerate Simone as a friend. M tags along as S cuts through town, a silent accomplice to a beast worse than any rabid cur. Amongst the mafia of Italy, how an unhinged cannon like this survives one more day is an evolving mystery.

A crisis for the duo is used by pic’s writers ( half of Rome has been roped in ) as a terrific opportunity to show us Simone’s mother. What kind of a lady is she ? It is a fascinating answer. What kind of a father does he have ?  It really does not matter. You saw Enokizu’s father in ‘Vengeance is Mine‘ – could that half-decent gent save-breed his son from going the way of the werewolves ? You saw Tommy Devito’s mother in ‘Goodfellas’ – she was a nice sort who even painted a splendid picture but did that do anything to tame Tommy ?

Finally, Marcello has it coming for cultivating toxic society. Fate slams his nose on the counter edge and brings him to face to face with the angel he’s been skirting. What really can he do ?

Pic’s aesthetic is a lean mean beast. The skies are overcast, there’s a wintry desultory hopelessness in the air and the background music is as active as the progeny of a neutered dog. This is visibly a low budget movie but cinematographer Nicolai Bruel and Garrone set up smooth, superb shots that are an instruction in judicious film-making. There is a long concrete walkway over the coastal rubble and Simone with his newly acquired monster-bike thunders along it from horizon to nearby as Marcello tries to call out to him – one of the film’s memorable shots that summate physical barrier with bifurcation of personal paths.

The anchor of the film is Marcello Fonte’s subtly perfect performance and no wonder he got the Best Actor award in Cannes ( notice Cannes doesn’t hesitate to reward this unglamorous persona with its marquee award, but the Oscars on a frequent basis seem to require something popularly mainstream). He’s the small-built squeaky-voiced chap who gets bullied in school ( although we’re not shown that ) and risks the same fate in adulthood. Fonte makes Marcello always effect an innocuous face, a timid body language that further diminishes his size, and the flat nasal low voice perpetuates the full picture of the underdog. One evening, after a bold move, he runs back to his shop, jumps up and pulls down the shutter, hanging on to the handle with his whole body descending with the shutter – like a child’s calisthenics rather than that of an adult’s  -  a nice touch underscoring his small fragile but plucky persona.

The denouement reaches the film’s zenith. You do what no one else had the balls to do, but then when you take the spoils of war to show to your audience, there is no one to hold their faces in awe and slowly clap and cheer for you. You scream to get their attention, but they’re busy playing a lesser game. Cosi e la vita.




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