@Filmhouse, Edinburgh Sun 14 Oct 2018

Ten years after Gomorrah, his previous journey through the depths of Italian organised crime, made his name, Matteo Garrone turns his attention once again to a cast of colourful characters living outside the law.  This time it’s a far more personal and intimate work; of low-level criminality, terrible decisions, and beta-male revenge.  Dogman is a morality tale about friendship, the desire to be liked, and the extent to which that can be abused.  However, while Garrone’s De Sica-like ultra-realism is hugely evocative in its sense of place, and the central performance is a wonder, the film’s bite doesn’t quite match its impressive bark.

Marcello (Marcello Fonte) runs a dog grooming service, catering for even the most terrifying, snarling beast.  He himself is a weaselly, jittery spelk of a man, who is nevertheless popular in his neighbourhood, possibly because of his sideline as a cocaine dealer.  This generally good-natured soul is dominated by Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a hulking brute seemingly carved from granite and ham, brought to life and left to rampage through Sports Direct.  He’s a loose cannon of random violence, as well as a prodigious coke fiend.  Despite this liability, Marcello wants to stay on the good side of his ‘friend’, even when the opportunity rises to get rid of him.  This backfires when Simone bullies the poor sap into a scheme to break into the pawn brokers next door, which puts in jeopardy not only Marcello’s standing in the community, but his very freedom.

After the fantastical Tale of TalesDogman is a blunt thud back to Earth for Garrone.  Shot in a washed out palette of insipid grey beneath lachrymose skies, the film takes place in a seedy, dilapidated coastal town a few penny-drop machines shy of being identical to any number of knackered British seaside resorts.  It’s implied that its denizens are a vestigial outlier of mob activity, and despite the insalubrious surroundings, Marcello is happy with his little community and adores his young daughter, whom he can treat thanks to his more shady dealings.  Fonte deservedly walked away from Cannes with the best actor gong; his Marcello a rich, layered and fully textured person who is likable if not always sympathetic.  He deserves a suitable antagonist, and this is where Dogman slips the leash somewhat.

Pesce is a bludgeoning force of nature, but Simone is such a despicable, one-note character that Marcello’s motivations for keeping him sweet are frustratingly unclear.  He’s a monster, not a real character and it makes no sense for Marcello to risk it all, particularly his access to his daughter.  If Simone is, as some have suggested, a metaphor for encroaching Fascism, it doesn’t ring true.  Fascism rises through Iago whispers and Mephistophelean seduction, not through pure fear (that tends to come later).  Garrone is way too accomplished a filmmaker for this taut drama not to hold the attention, and there is undeniable pleasure in the inevitable turning of the worm and Marcello’s embrace of wily, chilly vengeance, but this glaring character flaw means Dogman feels like the bones of something brilliant that wasn’t quite fleshed out.