A meek dog groomer is pushed too far in this Italian crime drama

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Broadway Theatre

Opens May 17

Dogman is the latest film from Italian director Matteo Garrone. Garrone won international acclaim in 2008 for his crime thriller Gomorrah. Similar to that film, Dogman is unapologetic social cinema that depicts an Italian community where violence is tolerated as part of life. Despite early accolades, though, it hasn’t generated much traction.

The Dogman of the title is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a meek dog groomer with a side gig as speed peddler. His best customer is a short-fused ex-boxer named Simone (Edoardo Pesce). A brutish giant, Simone is a walking wrecking ball, and it’s up to his dealer to keep him calm. The thankless task often descends into physical abuse. But for Marcello, there are also perks to being friends with the big man in town.

The volatile situation is unsustainable, and Marcello is pushed into a corner. But what can he do against this beast of a man?

One of Dogman’s best attributes (outside the parade of seriously fantastic dogs) is its ability to avoid black-and-white situations. The hero may be bullied into doing some questionable stuff, but Marcello is far from innocent. In turn, the community is not above of putting a hit on Simone when he grows beyond inconvenient. Dogman has generous dollops of comedy. Without them, it would be excruciating.

I had the opportunity to talk with Marcello Fonte during last year’s TIFF via interpreter. The unassuming, likeable Fonte is so similar to his Dogman character one could think he was just playing himself. Turns out, Fonte has plenty of credits, including one as an extra in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.

How do you connect with Marcello, the dog groomer?

We drew the character together (with Matteo Garrone), same as his connection with the people in the community. There is a line in the film that says “Here, everybody likes me” and I relied on that. The love that Marcello has for the dogs is something I’ve felt in my own life. I was raised with dogs. Also, the dream of having a daughter. I found myself embodying the father I would like to become.

Speaking of which, did you have a problem with the fact that Marcello would forfeit the possibility of being with his daughter for other considerations?

Marcello’s choice was to protect his daughter from danger (namely Simone). The greatest proof of love is to take yourself out of the picture. He knows himself and his problems, so he sends his daughter with her mother because he feels it’s the best path for her. There is a parallel with the chihuahua Marcello saves from the cold earlier in the film. The dog wants to follow him, but Marcello doesn’t want him to do that.

What kind of relationship did you have with Edoardo Pesce (Simone)? Did Matteo Garrone try to create some tension between you to use in the movie?

We worked together, we ate together, we rehearsed in a four square meters area. In real life, my friends didn’t like Edoardo. That kind of tension helped me understand what it’s like when someone comes between you and your community.

Your performance is very physical. You deal with dogs, get into fights. What interaction was the most challenging?

Hitting Simone on the head with a piece of iron. My body refused to do it. I couldn’t bring my arm down. It was easier to carry him.

He is like 250 pounds.

Edoardo told me he weighted 180, but that was just one thigh.

What are the logistical challenges of working with dogs?

There was no problem. I got along with them very well. They kept me on my toes. You have to be attentive because if they get bored, their attention goes elsewhere. We had to improvise constantly, like in that scene in which I feed pasta to “my” dog, Jack. It was a perfect communion. He knew me and I knew he liked noodles with pesto.

Did you learn some basic dog grooming?

Once upon a time I was a barber. I can even cut hair now if needed. This helped me to get the part. I also shadowed a dog groomer for three months. I shampooed a lot of dogs, did their nails. I got to understand the stress of the job and my character’s voice came from that understanding.

How relevant is Dogman given the social unrest in Italy at the moment?

Marcello represents how people see problems around them and nobody does anything about it. The film is also universal in the sense that symbolizes our unwillingness to help because we’re too self-involved.

Do you have a dog?

Yes, Sasha. A mutt. Just like Jack.