“Dogman” is a film that embodies the feeling of walking down a dark alley at night. It has a sense of impending doom that never lets up. At the end of the way, something ominous lies waiting.
The film is an exploration of the way this feeling of liminality can be embodied in a person, as the film’s main character, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), is forced to choose between acting on his beastlike capacity for violence and his stable life as a family man.
At the outset, Marcello lives a simple, provincial life in a dilapidated Italian suburb, spending his days in a cycle of placid happiness at his dog grooming shop, playing soccer with his friends and doting on his young daughter. But a wrench is thrown into the slowly grinding gears of Marcello’s life with the appearance of Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce) — a brutish, bull-faced former boxer who terrorizes Marcello, forcing him to engage in various petty crimes. Pettiness turns to seriousness, however, midway through the film, when Marcello is sent to prison for serving as Simoncino’s accomplice. After his release, realizing his life has been upended, he decides to take matters into his own hands, carrying out a revenge fantasy to destroy his tormentor.
What results is a mélange of sharp extremes and visceral violence. Where Simoncino is a vessel of uncontained violence and rage, Marcello is his foil, an affable guy just making his way through life. But when violence creeps into Marcello’s life, even if only by circumstance, he too, succumbs to the evil that Simoncino represents. The film takes an ambiguous stance, not striving to make any broad commentary, nor offering a clear answer other than tracing Marcello’s descent into a pit of immorality. Like Marcello, we see cause and effect play out, but do so with little cognizance as to how to stop the course of motion — this parallel relationship is a strength of the film, heightening the feeling of desperation expressed on screen.
“Dogman’s” attention to juxtaposition is also shown in one of its best fight scenes, in which Simoncino and a drug dealer spar amid spare parts for a carnival after an exchange goes wrong in a warehouse. As blood spatters the clown faces and carousel horses, Marcello’s complacency — standing by and waiting for Simone to finish pummeling his opponent — becomes more jarring.
Despite being a relative newcomer to the film industry, Fonte renders Marcello skillfully, beginning with a wide-eyed naivete that slowly escalates into a rolling boil of rage and won the Best Actor Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. This shift parallels Marcello’s descent into violence, during which he leaves behind his role as father and community member in order to enact his revenge on Simoncino. As the only character with considerable screen time, Fonte subtly commands the film, striking a strange balance between bumbling and brutalizing as he completes the transition from family man to lone wolf. This transition, however, doesn’t lean into communicating sympathy or disgust for the character, but rather sterilely shows his progression between these two extremes.
This is best exemplified when the film leaves Marcello’s dour coastal hometown to attend a dog grooming competition with his daughter. Gone are the crumbling buildings and stinky heaps of rubble, in come fluffy poodles and glimmering medals for the winning canines. In this rare moment, the overhanging cloud of violence briefly dissipates, showing Marcello for who he may really be — a simple man with simple tastes. Removed from the violence, maybe he is just a man caught up in the wrong things at the wrong time. But maybe not.
As we follow Marcello down the dark path, dogs howling, he ultimately makes a choice to go down the alleyway, accepting a future of violence that only escalates with each scene. The final act plays out in its penultimate act of destruction and the look in Marcello’s eye suggests that maybe the only answer is to turn around before it’s too late.
Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].