'Dogman' Review: A Morality Tale We Deserve [TIFF]

Italian director Matteo Garrone has risen to international stardom with lightning speed, especially since his 2008 film Gomorrah took the second-highest prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Yet, for all his acclaim, I have tended to find his work remote and slightly inaccessible. Garrone's latest film, Dogman, is a film worthy of his stature and the first time his bite has been as strong as his bark. This morality tale wrings gripping drama from an imperfect man backed into an unenviable corner.

Find out more in out full Dogman review below.

Garrone tasks Marcello Fonte, a relative newcomer to screen acting, with the realization of a complete parable about ethical behavior. Fonte's character, also named Marcello, is a timid, diminutive dog groomer in a small Italian town. He has little else to his name but a good reputation, and though Garrone provides scant backstory, Marcello appears to have scrapped hard for this respect. He also works hard to impress his daughter Sofia, who lives with her mother, by teaching her the tricks of his trade and plotting elaborate scuba diving vacations for the two of them.

But clearly, Marcello's family and career do not provide him with all the necessary satisfaction because he still indulges the whims of the brutish Simone (Edoardo Pesce). This "mad dog," as the town's elders deem him, treats Marcello like a pet. The dogman is there to supply Simone with the cocaine he desires as well as to serve as an accomplice to criminality by driving their getaway car. Marcello endures this abuse for the rare opportunity when Simone lets loose and treats him like an equal rather than human garbage. Yet even when the bully allows him to partake in the high life, Garrone's camera captures Marcello's face looking slightly empty and unsatisfied.

Marcello craves what most of us do – attention, validation, acceptance – but various townspeople express bafflement over why he cannot be content with what he already has. They note the incongruity of his good standing in the community with Simone's reign of terror. Marcello brushes off their concerns, convinced he possesses the ability to control Simone. His confidence, however, quickly proves misplaced when his would-be partner-in-crime commits a massive betrayal in trust. Simone's latest bout of selfishness leaves Marcello in a lurch with the tough choice of preserving their relationship or sacrificing his name in town. There's no middle option, and Marcello must make a decision in this moment that will define the rest of his life.

Fonte makes his character deeply human, especially in morally dubious situations like these. Even when Marcello makes grievous errors, we feel tragedy and sorrow toward the character rather than outright scorn. Marcello's lusting after an unrequited friendship and elite status by association gives him an almost childlike magnetism. And Fonte's compact physical frame, coupled with a face that resembles a young Al Pacino, amplifies that by making him such an innocent-looking figure.

In Marcello's waffling, which attempts to placate multiple parties with his decision-making, he has the reverse effect and alienates everyone. His story is not just that of an Italian dog barber – Dogman is a passionately allegorical tale for the modern-day enabler. Marcello can stand in for anyone who wants the prestige of hobnobbing with powerful yet dangerous people and is willing to trade on that proximity for material benefits. When faced with the consequences of traveling in this dangerous orbit, Marcello equivocates, dodges or outright lies. Garrone suggests such neutrality is unfeasible in today's world, and anyone who helps sets the stage for abuses of power can neither shirk responsibility nor avoid the fallout of these offenses.

Garrone follows his story fearless into the heart of human darkness, providing us with a grim assessment of moral relativists in a trying time. Fonte matches his director's commitment to probing this depravity, and their collaboration is nothing short of devastating. Garrone's tough love in the vessel of Fonte's tender performance makes for a real wallop, one that resonates both personally and politically. Without spoilers, they leave us in a place that's both unsettled and unsatisfying. In 2018, that's what we deserve.

/Film rating: 8.5 out of 10