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D: Matteo Garrone / 103m

Cast: Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce, Nunzia Schiano, Adamo Dionisi, Francesco Acquaroli, Gianluca Gobbi, Alida Baldari Calabria, Laura Pizzirani, Giancarlo Porcacchia, Aniello Arena

In a rundown seaside resort during a miserable winter, Marcello (Fonte) makes a living as the local dog groomer. Operating out of a small shop that’s part of a small parade of other businesses, Marcello is a quiet, inoffensive man whose marriage has broken down, but who has a daughter, Alida (Calabria), who dotes on him. They go on expensive holidays together, which Marcello pays for by dealing cocaine on the side to his friends at the parade. But one local individual, Simone (Pesce), an intimidating and thuggish former boxer, takes advantage of Marcello’s timidity and never pays for his cocaine when he wants it. Marcello is further taken advantage of when Simone “persuades” him to be the getaway driver in a house robbery. Later still, Simone bullies Marcello into letting him have the keys to his shop so that Simone can break through the adjoining wall of the jewellers next door, and rob the place. Marcello is compromised by the robbery, and is arrested and then jailed when he says nothing about Simone’s involvement. But when he comes out, he goes looking for reparation…

As much a delicate character study as it is a bruising drama, Dogman is many things, but each aspect has been carefully melded to ensure that the whole is entirely effective, and the viewer is left with the sense that this is an entirely credible slice of life. Dealing with ideas related to loneliness, bullying, moral lethargy, and the modest aspirations of its main character, Garrone’s follow up to Tale of Tales (2015) is like gaining access to a world that we’ve heard about but never seen before, a world where a combination of weakness and strength is a vital component in the struggle to survive. Marcello is always deferring to others, even amongst the other shop owners who are ostensibly his friends, and outside of his relationship with Alida, he’s a loner who struggles to make himself stand out. His need for acceptance leads him to spend time with Simone, as if the two of them were friends, but so desperate is Marcello’s need to be included he allows himself to be patronised and exploited in equal measure. When he’s released from prison, there’s the initial impression that he’s toughened up, and to a degree he has, but as his pursuit of Simone and the restitution he feels is owing to him unfolds, it becomes clear that much of this change is only on the surface – and this leads to an uncomfortable, bittersweet ending.

Garrone has fashioned a tense, often unnerving movie that doesn’t shy away from portraying Marcello’s struggles against the backdrop of a demoralised seaside resort that has seen better days, and having the resort mirror the continual setbacks that Marcello endures. The only relief there is comes from beautifully lit underwater scenes where Marcello and Alida scuba dive on their holidays, a respite for both of them from the tawdry gloom of their home town. Garrone places these scenes carefully throughout the movie, but not to offer hope; instead they’re an acknowledgement of just how far Marcello is from those wondrous experiences. Fonte gives a subdued yet expressive performance, always apologetic, always nervous, never feeling at ease, and ready to excuse any inconvenience. It’s a subtle exercise in character building, with Fonte working from the inside out, and showing how Marcello’s innate passivity has fostered a kind of perverse self-preservation. As the hulking brute, Simone, Pesce is all blunt force and deliberate condescension, and he brings a cruel menace to his scenes with Fonte; you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do, but you do know that it won’t be pleasant. The relationship between Simone and Marcello is the unlikely focus of a movie that doesn’t believe in happy endings, and by showing how happy Marcello can be in this relationship, Garrone makes Marcello’s predicament a thing of undiluted tragedy.

Rating: 9/10 – sombre and unhesitatingly harsh, Dogman paints a bleak yet compelling portrait of moral and emotional ambiguity, and what some people will do to feel included; a standout performance from Fonte anchors a menacing script by Garrone and co-screenwriters Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso, and the whole thing benefits from superb work by DoP Nicolai Brüel that matches the darkness inherent both in the material, and the souls of its two main characters.