The director Matteo Garrone has an unorthodox approach to casting. Not for him a quick flick through Spotlight, or whatever its Italian equivalent might be. For the 2012 fable Reality, one of the great films of this century, he hired Aniello Arena to play a stallholder convinced he is about to be selected as a Big Brother contestant. Arena was a former hitman for the Camorra, and was at that point two decades in to a life sentence without parole for his involvement in a triple homicide. (Judges had refused Garrone’s request to cast him a few years earlier in the Mafia thriller Gomorrah, ruling the subject matter too close to home.) Marcello Fonte, the lead in Garrone’s new film Dogman, was working as a caretaker at a centre for former prisoners when he was cast as his namesake, Marcello, a milquetoast and father of one who runs a pooch parlour in a decaying beachfront town near Naples. One minute you’re brandishing a broom, the next you’re winning Best Actor at Cannes.
Fonte is a tiny, Chaplinesque child-man with a wobbly head. The face suggests a cross between Serge Gainsbourg and Rowan Atkinson; cartoonishly oversized eyes are shuttered by lids so heavy it must take a crowbar to prise them open in the morning. No need to go hunting for humour when his appearance is so inherently comic, not least as Marcello interacts with his clients. In one shot, he shampoos a vicious Rottweiler at arm’s length with a mop. In another he’s dwarfed by a regal-looking Great Dane that seems ready to bop him with a floppy paw.
It would have to get in line behind Marcello’s chief tormentor, the snarling thug Simone (Edoardo Pesce), with whom he is inextricably entangled. The brute calls on him for cocaine, bullies him into being a getaway driver and roundly abuses him, but Marcello keeps coming back for more. The most he can do is keep Simone away from his daughter. As she grooms a shaggy mutt on the left of the frame, Simone is busy snorting lines on the right. Marcello’s compartmentalisation of these nice and nasty parts of his life can’t hold forever, though, and most of the suspense in the film arises as we wait for the worm to turn, the mouse to roar.
Garrone’s deferral of that moment, his withholding of release and catharsis, turns the film into a character study rather than the conventional thriller hinted at by its gangster trappings, or the modern Western suggested by the layout of the lawless town square (grim buildings on either side overlooking a dusty wasteland at the centre).
Marcello’s relationship with Simone is already entrenched long before the film begins, but the exact character of their co-dependency remains mysterious. Marcello has several opportunities to extricate himself – he need only look the other way during the various attempts on Simone’s life – and yet he passes up each one. They’re like a vaudeville double-act, scarcely able to exist without one another. That point is underscored during a fight scene in a props workshop in which Simone smashes a man’s head repeatedly against the face of a full-sized Oliver Hardy mannequin while Stan Laurel and Marcello look on from the sidelines. That’s another fine mess Simone has got them into. A bloody mess, in this case.
If Dogman has a problem, it is one of scale. Garrone has been attuned to the visual power of disparity since his 1996 film The Embalmer, a taxidermists’ love triangle that also had a pint-sized protagonist, and he skilfully exploits the incongruousness of Marcello and Simone; one shot, of the heftier man slumped over the smaller one as they roar through the streets on a motorbike, suggests a high-speed pietà.
But the tension between the squalid subject matter and Nicolai Brüel’s lavish widescreen cinematography is not as effective as the director believes it to be, giving the sensation of a filmmaker who fails to match the scope of his story to the size of his canvas. None of which should be taken as any slight on Fonte, whose performance deepens right up to the expressive final close-up of his sunken, depleted face. In little more than 90 minutes, he completes the unlikely metamorphosis from a Mr Bean to an El Greco.
This article appears in the 17 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s civil war