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By Stephen Campbell June 17, 2019
**_A well made modern fable_** [contains spoilers]
> _I sprayed him with gasoline in his face and set him on fire. With his head he breaks through the wire mesh of the cage and begins to scream. He screamed like a madman. I tie him with two chains around his neck, the ones I use to hold dogs. I turn up the volume on the stereo, grab a stick and hit it. Twice. He faints, his head hanging from the broken wire, his body extended and his legs open. I take the scissors, I cut the thumbs and the indexes. I spray the gasoline on the wounds and burn them to stop the bleeding. He wakes up. He is gro__ggy, looks at his hands and begins to scream again. And he growling: "I swear that when I am untied I will kill you." It's five o'clock by now. Every now and then I go to the bathroom and sniff some coke. I leave the shop, take a breath of air. Then go back inside. I leave for half an hour to go to the nearby school where my daughter is. I take her to my ex-wife's house and return to the shop. I took the scissors and I cut his face. Then the ears, then the nose. He screamed, but the volume of the stereo covered everything. He was bleeding and I sprayed fuel on the wounds and burned them. He is no longer responding. He was still alive. He never died, he had a strong heart. He was breathing, but now he was no longer talking. He understood who was the strongest. I took the scissors and I cut his tongue, then his cock and balls. I opened his mouth with pincers and put everything in it. Then I whispered to him: "once a man, now you are a woman!" He kept moving. Then suddenly he died. Suffocated. But the torture is not over. I break his teeth, stick a finger in his anus and two more in his eyes. Then I hammer open the skull and wash his brain._
- Daniele Mastrogiacomo quoting Pietro De Negri; "E Alla Fine Si E' Deciso A Morire..."; _La Repubblica_ (February 23, 1988)
Loosely based on a real-life incident, _Dogman_ is an intimate character drama telling the story of an inherently good man who pays the price for attempting to foster a friendship with an irredeemable and sociopathic brute. Directed and co-written by Matteo Garrone, the film operates on the level of both social realism and as a kind of modern-day Aesop's fable, as filtered through the sensibilities of a Martin Scorsese or a Francis Ford Coppola. Postulating the somewhat nihilistic view that, when pushed to extremes and backed into a corner, man is no different than a dog, the film returns Garrone to the mob-infused milieu of his breakout, _Gomorra_ (2008). However, the two are markedly different films – whereas _Gomorra_ weaved five separate stories into a complex narrative tapestry, _Dogman_ focuses tightly on one simple core story; whereas _Gomorra_ told the story of a widely-influential and powerful organised criminal enterprise, _Dogman_ tells the story of a localised and utterly ridiculous criminal mentality; whereas _Gomorra_ depicted mob figures both powerful and insignificant, _Dogman_ depicts people not even on the lowest rungs of the ladder. However, there are also undeniable similarities between the films. Both emphasise the importance of omertà, and both explore some of the less glamourous aspects of gangsterism – the casual and often pointless brutality, the illogical sycophancy, the centrality of pusillanimity, the power granted to dealers by addiction, the nature of poverty and/or ignorance, the abdication of immediate self-interest in deference to potential long-term accruement. Essentially, if _Gomorra_ showed us how the Camorra is run, _Dogman_ shows us the squalor and sordidness at street level. And whilst it isn't a patch on Garrone's masterpiece, focusing a little too much on allegory and not enough on self-contained narrative beats, it's still an accomplished piece of work.
Diminutive and inoffensive, Marcello (Marcello Fonte, who won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance), owns a small dog-grooming business in a run-down Neapolitan sea-side suburb. Separated from his wife, Marcello is devoted to his daughter, Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), with whom he has a strong relationship. Popular in the community, he spends his free time playing five-a-side football and eating in the town's only remaining restaurant with the vicinity's other business-owners, including Franco (Adamo Dionisi), who owns a gold-for-cash store next door to Marcello. However, to pay for the expensive holidays on which he takes Alida, he sells cocaine on the side, his best customer for which is the hulking Simoncino (a ferocious performance from Edoardo Pesce that's equal parts Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's _Raging Bull_ and Matthias Schoenaerts in Michaël R. Roskam's _Rundskop_). An unpredictable and volatile ex-boxer who everyone in town fears, although Simoncino treats Marcello with utter contempt, bullying him into being the driver when he is engaged in a robbery, Marcello seems to genuinely respect the bigger man, wanting to foster a real friendship – when Simoncino finds himself in a fight with two drug dealers, Marcello intervenes to help him, and later, when Simoncino is shot, Marcello steps in to save his life. However, when Simoncino decides to rob Franco's store by busting a hole through Marcello's wall, Marcello is immediately uncomfortable. Failing to talk him out of the robbery, Marcello is subsequently arrested, but refuses to testify against Simoncino. As a result, he is charged and sentenced to a year in jail. Upon his release, he is distressed to find the locals no longer speak to him, and Alida looks at him differently. Unchanged, however, is how Simoncino treats him, and Marcello soon decides he's had enough of being pushed around.
Although it hasn't been widely advertised, the film is actually based on the case of Pietro De Negri. Known as "Er Canaro" (the dog keeper), De Negri was the owner of a dog-grooming business in the Magliana area of Rome who dealt cocaine on the side. In 1988, fed up with being bullied by former boxer and cocaine addict Giancarlo Ricci, De Negri laid a trap for Ricci, imprisoning him in a dog cage, and murdering him. The case made headlines in Italy because of the details of De Negri's confession, in which he claimed to have tortured Ricci for over seven hours prior to his death. According to De Negri, he tied Ricci up and, with Ricci still conscious, amputated the thumbs and index fingers from both hands, before cauterising the wounds with a blow-torch to ensure he didn't bleed to death. Having left to pick his daughter up from school, De Negri returned, cutting off Ricci's nose, both his ears, his tongue, and his penis. Using a pincer, he then inserted the severed penis into Ricci's throat, choking him to death. After Ricci was dead, De Negri smashed his teeth with a hammer, inserted some of the severed fingers into Ricci's anus and eyes, and finally split his skull open with a pipe wrench and washed the brain with dog shampoo. He then wrapped the body in plastic and attempted to burn it in a nearby landfill, where it was discovered the next morning, still smouldering. When De Negri was arrested, he confessed to the murder, making the above claims without any remorse. However, an autopsy quickly revealed that much of what De Negri had confessed hadn't actually happened – all of the amputations and much of the bodily harm had been done post-mortem. Ricci had actually died due to severe head trauma, with the coroner estimated that death had taken approximately 40 minutes, not the seven hours De Negri claimed. Additionally, the fingers had never been cauterised and there was no trace of shampoo in the cranium. During his trial, it was argued that De Negri suffered from paranoid psychosis, exacerbated by his own cocaine addiction, and he was sentenced to 24 years in prison. He was released in 2005. _Dogman_ is one of two 2018 Italian films based on the case, along with Sergio Stivaletti's less high-profile _Rabbia furiosa: Er Canaro_.
Narratively, _Dogman_ is relatively uninterested in the culmination of the relationship between Marcello and Simoncino, and much more in the events that build to that culmination. In this sense, the narrative is fairly evenly bifurcated by Marcello's jail time, with the first half of the film focusing on the increasingly dangerous and destructive "friendship", whilst the second explores the fallout from the cumulative abuse, looking at what can happen when even the most mild-mannered individual is pushed too far too often. The film goes out of its way to ensure that the audience feels sympathy for Marcello, if not necessarily empathy, depicting him as a fundamentally decent person, coke dealing aside. Yes, he's weak-willed and a terrible judge of character, but he dearly loves his daughter, who he treats like a queen, he is respectful and accommodating to his friends, and he seems to genuinely believe he can save Simoncino from himself. When Simoncino proposes robbing Franco's store, one of the reasons that Marcello offers as to why he doesn't want to do it is that, "_it's important that people here like me_." Although this could come across as narcissistic, the way Fonte plays the character instead suggests that being liked sincerely makes Marcello happy, and he is quite content to do what he must to earn the admiration of his peers. In this sense, his hamartia is that he believes he can apply logic to his friendship with Simoncino – if he gives Simoncino what he wants, then Simoncino will come to respect him, and at that point, Marcello can turn him away from the path down which he is travelling. Highly skilled at placating the snarling dogs who don't want him anywhere near them, Marcello believes he can do the same with Simoncino. The problem, of course, is that he is 100% wrong about this – Simoncino is a wild beast, permanently in battle mode, and logic cannot be applied to such a man. For a very brief period, it does seem like he has endeared himself to Simoncino, if not necessarily earned his respect - when the two visit a nightclub, Simoncino goes out of his way to try to hook Marcello up with a woman – but this is only a momentary lull, and the relationship soon returns to the bullying foundation on which it was originally built.
Especially worthy of praise is the film's almost post-apocalyptic location, which is practically another character entirely – the beach is ugly, dirty, and overgrown; the buildings are unoccupied, paint peeling off the walls, vines crawling up the facades, some of them literally only shells; the shopfronts are rusty. This ties into the film's allegorical concerns, as the desolate nature of the locale mirrors the barren souls of the men who live here (and they are almost exclusively men – the only females of note are Alida, who lives elsewhere, and Simoncino's mother (Nunzia Schiano), who appears in only one scene). Director of photography Nicolai Brüel often shoots the dilapidated housing blocks in extreme long shots, rendering the already diminutive Marcello even smaller and more oppressed. The film also mixes subjective handheld camerawork, with more elevated and fixed, pseudo-omniscient shots. The colours are also extremely limited, with white, yellow, and beige predominating.
Fitting very much into Garrone's oeuvre, Dogman bears a number of similarities to _L'imbalsamatore_ (2002); both are loosely based on real events, both are set in run-down coastal suburbs, both focus on co-dependent and toxic relationships between mismatched male characters. The Fellini-esque tendencies evidenced in _Reality_ (2012) and _Tale of Tales_ (2015) are also apparent, with Marcello and Simoncino working as a kind of twisted version of Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) and Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) from Fellini's _La Strada_ (1954). In _Dogman_, however, the allegorical content is taken further than in any of Garrone's previous work. Co-written by Garrone and his regular collaborators, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudisio, the film wants to convey universal truths in respect to humanity by focusing on the micro rather than the macro. Of course, for an allegory to work, it must first and foremost function as a stand-alone story, and the argument could be made that this is where _Dogman_ falls down. The storyline is very slight, with Garrone seemingly more interested in philosophising than he is in story-telling.
However, there are certainly metaphorical aspects that work. For example, it's telling that the activity most favoured by Marcello and Alida is scuba-diving. Similarly, "Dogman" may be the name of Marcello's business, but it also describes both protagonist and antagonist – Simoncino is the snarling attack dog who Marcello must try to calm, whilst Marcello is the unfailingly loyal lapdog who always returns to his abusive master. On the other hand, are the caged dogs seen throughout the film supposed to represent how Marcello is entrapped by Simoncino's violence, or are the shots of Marcello pampering them a metaphor for his servility to an indifferent master? In other words, the film is a little muddled on exactly which side of the allegorical equation the dogs belong.
However aside from this slight impreciseness regarding the allegory, _Dogman_ is a fine film. Humble in its aspirations, and small by design, some viewers will find it too uneventful, whilst others will find the ending too abrupt. However, all things considered, I found it to be a strong piece of cinema.