Matteo Garrone’s ‘Dogman’

By Tristen Harwood

Man’s best friend takes on uneasy meaning in this brutal tale


In Dogman’s first frame, a close-up shows a white pit bull terrier baring its fangs, lunging and snarling at the camera. Confined in a steel washbasin and restrained by a heavy, wall-mounted choker-chain, the dog is lulled with kindness by the film’s protagonist, Marcello, a diminutive dog groomer living in a bleak Italian coastal town. In this opening scene, Italian director Matteo Garrone quickly establishes misdirected aggression and confinement as central themes in his latest film (in cinemas August 29).

The captive dog’s aggression is real and present; what isn’t so clear is what triggers the dog’s outburst: haunting violence and a hostile environment drive characters’ behaviour throughout this film.

Like Gomorrah, Garrone’s 2008 Cannes Grand Prix–winning film – a searing portrayal of people whose lives are marred by a Neapolitan mafia – Dogman is set in a ruinous Italian town in which the community is beset by violence. This time the figure of the mafia is replaced with Simone, a towering former boxer who terrorises the townspeople.

The fierce pit bull that Marcello tends to in the first scene is an obvious metaphor for Simone. Their relationship is tense and steeply asymmetrical. Marcello cannot negotiate with or physically defend himself from the unrelenting bully. Trapped in the isolated town, he opts for obsequiousness, keeping a stash of cocaine to sate Simone’s drug habit, not unlike the dog treats he uses to befriend the pit bull. But while Marcello is able to control the dog with kindness, Simone is a force beyond the power of compassion.

The law doesn’t offer the townspeople adequate protection from Simone, and this drives them to discuss the serious possibility of having him assassinated. Aside from the present-day violence in the town, an undisclosed past violence lingers, apparent in the way the characters relate to one another.”

The town isn’t quite a character in Dogman, but it’s much more than just a setting. A slow sweeping shot, taken from the periphery of the nameless village, offers the first glimpse of its barren location. It’s the scene of an aftermath, as though the town is yet to recover from some unknown devastation. The sound of caustic sea breeze scraping through wiry coastal scrub heightens the sense of desolation, before the camera cuts to the town centre, empty except for two children playing on creaking swings.

There is no question in Dogman that the vast emptiness of the environment confines through isolation. The film is visually and thematically reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s grim Italian classic Accattone (1961), which was set in the slums of Rome and depicted the lives of impoverished individuals. Like Pasolini’s protagonist, nicknamed “Accattone” (Italian for beggar), Marcello’s life is seemingly placid until tragedy strikes. His dog-grooming business, called “Dogman”, where he tends to an array of pedigree dogs, provides him with an anomalous sanctuary in the destitute town.

Marcello cares deeply for dogs, a care that threatens to lead to his demise, so much so that at one point in the film he goes to great lengths to rescue a chihuahua, while even making clear that in doing so he risks losing his daughter, whom he loves dearly.

Dogman is not alone in exploring the incongruity between human empathy for dogs and responsibility to other humans. In the neorealist film Bombón: El Perro (2004), Argentinian director Carlos Sorín tells the story of Coco, an earnest middle-aged man and his chance relationship with a massive, frost-white Dogo Argentino named Bombón. For Coco, who chooses Bombón over his daughter, a relationship with a dog offers a welcome escape from social and emotional obligations to humans.

Unlike Coco, Marcello doesn’t find salvation, and yet there is a sense that dogs offer him a form of relief from the brutality and confinement of his social and environmental circumstances. After the film’s turning point, Marcello must live in the shadow of a contemptible error of judgement, recalling another fictional “dog man”, the execrable David of J.M. Coetzee’s 1999 novel, Disgrace.

Set in post-apartheid South Africa, Disgrace depicts the disgraced professor’s efforts to protect the dead bodies of stray dogs from the brutalities of the men who work at the local incinerator. In doing so he preserves his own ethical integrity, though these acts don’t redeem him. For Marcello, dogs don’t offer redemption or any possibility of restoring his personal integrity. Finally, he must direct himself towards the humans in his life in order to deliver some form of justice to the depleted town.

Garrone doesn’t implicate the viewer in the actions of either Marcello or Simone; instead the audience is given space to grasp the characters’ acts of aggression and care alike. The film uses exaggerated motifs – such as the variously threatening, obedient and grovelling dogs that mirror characters – and obvious cinematic devices – such as sparse sound and lingering shots of the barren environs. In this way, Dogman provides a symbolic code to comprehend the limitations such an environment places on human behaviour without determining for the audience how the characters should be judged.

Ultimately, the people who exist in the world Garrone portrays in Dogman manage to get by in the violent aftermath of events that are never made clear to us. Where and how we fill in the voids to make sense of the characters’ actions is informed by our own sense of justice.

Tristen Harwood

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher, now living in Naarm (Melbourne).


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