'Dogman': Film Review | Cannes 2018

A teeth-chattering culmination of Matteo Garrone's darkest themes.

The thirst for money destroys even the best in a modern fable set in Gomorrah country.

Though it has far less outright violence than Gomorrah, whose oppressive criminal atmosphere it shares, Matteo Garrone's Dogman is just as intense a viewing experience, one that will have audiences gripping their armrests with its frighteningly real portrayal of a good man tempted by the devil. Once again set in the Camorra-ridden hinterlands around Naples, the new film pours the various threads running through the Italian director's work into a boiling cauldron of poverty, ignorance and self-interest. The result is a perfected version of Garrone's The Embalmer, written in the form of his dark fables from Tale of Tales.

Here the conflict is reduced to its barest existential essentials: A good man who loves dogs and grooms them for a living is tempted by a demonic, half-crazed brute to steal. His reward is hell. Garrone, who won the grand jury prize in Cannes in 2012 with his Neapolitan comedy Reality, should be in the running for more kudos with this film, whose unrelenting tension likely will bust through borders for sales company Rai Com.

Superb performances by Marcello Fonte as a mild-mannered dog groomer and a crazed Edoardo Pesce as his fatal attraction poise the film midway between the realistic criminal world and a symbolic, universal dimension. Both are professional actors, but so convincing in their roles that they could have sprung from the desolate landscape around him.

The Dogman shop is a poodle parlor out of hell, tucked into the wastelands around Castel Volturno. To say it's located in a bad part of town is more than understatement. Skirting the sea and a long weedy beach are desolate rows of quickly constructed buildings untouched by an urban planner and already reduced to patchwork. This architectural nightmare mirrors the souls of the rough, tough men who run pool halls and cash-for-gold stores. The locals are fiercer than any pit bull in the film.

The four-writer screenplay is tense, tight and to the point, yet it finds room for a sardonic sense of humor. In the opening scene, Marcello (Fonte) is cooing soothingly to a snarling killer dog just waiting for a chance to sink its teeth into him. It stands heavily chained in a big metal sink while he tries to shampoo it with a mop. Funny and scary at the same time, their duet turns up the tension immediately, while it presents a character worth caring about.

Forget Rottweilers; the real danger soon arrives in the form of a blustering hulk named Simone (Pesce). He's the meanest, orneriest guy in town, a loose cannon who has a short fuse and a few screws missing. Marcello is the only one who seems unafraid of approaching him and calms him down, almost professionally, with a few lines of cocaine. Still, it's clear that he's playing with fire.

Simone and a pal hustle Marcello into driving them to a residential neighborhood, where they burglarize an apartment. When they tell him, uproariously, that they left a yapping little dog in the freezer to shut him up, Marcello drives back to rescue the frozen pooch, who gets a lot of audience sympathy.

The groomer's wide-eyed, humorous face lights up with paternal joy in the presence of his daughter (Alida Baldari Calabria), who helps out with the dogs now and then. She's virtually the only female in the cast, apart from Simone's hard-hearted mother, played by actress Nunzia Schiano. It comes as a surprise to see father and daughter enjoying their favorite hobby together: scuba diving off the coast. He wants to take her diving somewhere exotic, but it's expensive.

This quietly sets the stage for a crazy robbery that Simone proposes to pull off in the gold shop next to Marcello's, ignoring the dogman's pleas that he is friends with Franco, the shopkeeper next door (Adamo Dionisi), and has a reputation to maintain in the neighborhood. One night, while Marcello uneasily goes to play soccer with Franco, the heedless giant knocks a hole in the wall between their shops. It marks a turning point that introduces the film's final, terrible act, which takes place under the eyes of the mute dogs and an unnatural dawn.

There is no question that Simone is a heartless, unredeemed lout with no feelings for the man who saved his life after killers tried, unsuccessfully, to rid the neighborhood of his violent presence. (One wishes fervently he hadn't bothered to rescue him.) What is it about Simone that fascinates the good man? Or more generally, what is it that attracts men to evil? The empty lots and overgrown beach turn into a metaphysical wasteland in an expressive finale that shows the impossibility of ridding the world of the devil.

As in all Garrone's films, lighting and camerawork (sometimes handheld and human, sometimes fixed, overhead and godlike) play a major role in creating a setting that is simultaneously real and imagined. Nicolaj Bruel's cinematography describes extreme desolation with a careful palette of limited colors that still manage to be eye-catching. Dimitri Capuani's sets are tawdry to the point of being humorous and depressingly real, while Michele Braga's nearly abstract score sets nerves on edge.

Production companies: Archimede, Le Pacte
Cast: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Alida Baldari Calabria, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi
Director: Matteo Garrone
Screenwriters: Ugo Chiti, Maurizio Raucci, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso
Producers: Paolo Del Brocco, Matteo Garrone, Jean Labadie, Jeremy Thomas
Executive producer: Alessio Lazzareschi
Director of photography: Nicolaj Bruel
Production designer: Dimitri Capuani
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Music: Michele Braga
Casting: Francesco Vedovati
Sales: Rai Com
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)

102 minutes