Learning To Bite

Dogman shows what you get when a community eschews responsibility

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Dogman never got much traction with audiences, despite critical accolades. Boo.

It’s not a matter of quality — Dogman, which was directed by Matteo Garrone, is excellent.

Dogman goes back to the well Garrone’s 2009 classic Gomorrah sprung from: this is unapologetic social realism that depicts an Italian community which too-easily tolerates violence as an unavoidable part of life. (The film is also allegoric, but not in an obnoxious, the-rat-symbolizes-corruption, kind of way.)

The “dog man” of the title is Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a meek groomer with a side gig peddling speed. His best customer is a short-fused former boxer named Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce). Simon is twice Marcello’s size and a walking wrecking ball. It’s up to his dealer to keep him calm — a thankless task that often degenerates into physical abuse. Still, there are perks to being friends with a brute.

Nevertheless, this is a volatile situation that can’t last and Marcello is eventually pushed into a corner. But what can a dog groomer do against this beast of a man?

One of Dogman’s best attributes (outside its parade of seriously fantastic dogs) is how it avoids black-and-white situations. Its “hero” may be bullied into perpetrating some questionable acts, but Marcello is far from innocent. In turn, the community is not above putting a hit on Simon when he grows inconvenient.

Dogman also has lots of comedy. Good thing: without it, this movie would be excruciating.

I spoke with Marcello Fonte during last year’s TIFF via interpreter. The unassuming, likeable Fonte is so like his name-sharing Dogman character that one might 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. Cool.

How do you connect with Marcello the dog groomer?

We [Fonte and Matteo Garrone] drew the character together, same as his connection with the people in the community. There’s 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 also 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 Marcello gives up his daughter?

Marcello’s choice was to protect his daughter from danger. The greatest proof of love is taking yourself out of the picture. He knows himself and his problems, so he sends his daughter away with her mother because he feels that’s the best path for her. There’s 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 [Simon]? 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 metres area. In real life, my friends didn’t like Edoardo, and 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 Simon 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 weighed 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 basic dog grooming?

Once upon a time I was a barber. I can even cut hair now if needed. This helped me 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 job’s stress, and my character’s voice came from that understanding.

Do you think Dogman is relevant given the social unrest in Italy?

Marcello represents how people see problems but nobody does anything about them. 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.