The movie’s title is in English because that is the name of the shop: Dogman. Marcello is a dog-groomer, and he is so good with dogs that he is able to eventually talk down a ferocious pit-bull into a massage. He also looks after dogs when their owners are on holiday and walks them through a run-down seaside town near Naples. The area looks a lot like it’s the same spot where director Matteo Garrone also set Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra (2008). Everyone is poor, it’s a touristy waterfront utterly devoid of any tourists; many buildings are run down or boarded up. It’s no wonder that organised crime is thriving in areas like this. Dogman, however, does not have a lot to do with the Camorra, but is about the people populating the area. There is Marcello the dogman, the gold merchant next door, the owner of the videogame parlor, and the owner of the restaurant where they all meet and talk. Life is hard, but they take it as it comes.
Marcello is a petty criminal, but he has a good heart, at least when it comes to dogs. He drives the getaway car for two burglars, but when he realises that they put a dog in the freezer because it was barking too loudly, he returns to the crime scene and reanimates the animal. That sounds corny, but that is who Marcello is: good-hearted, generous, scraggly, quiet, soulful, of uncertain age, a head shorter than anyone else so that women find him twee, like a big boy. He dotes on his daughter and is friendly with everyone, including his ex-wife.
But there is Simone, an ex-boxer with a cocaine habit and the mental instability of a hand grenade. He thinks nothing of butting a video-game booth with his forehead because it doesn’t pay him his money back. Everyone fears him, but the police will only arrest him for a few months, and when he returns, everyone’s problems will be much bigger than they are now. Someone proposes to hire hitmen, but there is disagreement. Marcello can’t make that decision because he provides Simone with small baggies of cocaine and is the most vulnerable of the group. There is a moment where Simone meets the local coke dealers, and their days are numbered. Whenever Simone wants to go partying, he calls Marcello because he is the only one who complies, and with his stunted growth, he looks like the least threat to him. That Marcello saves Simone’s life one night is a fringe benefit and doesn’t mean much to a knucklehead like Simone.
The first half of Dogman sets up Marcello as the man who keeps Simone in check with his small baggies of coke as well as he can, but one day, Simone wants to get access to Marcello’s shop in order to dig through the wall into the gold merchant’s shop. The police think, fatally, that Marcello was behind it, and he cannot rat Simone out because you just don’t rat anyone in your neighborhood out. Marcello takes the fall, and when he returns one year later, Simone is still there, and Marcello’s former friends hate him and cast him out because he didn’t warn the gold merchant or anyone else about the robbery. Walking his dogs on the beach, he is now more alone than ever. His shy smile is gone.
Marcello is played by Marcello Fonte, an occasional actor who was born into the poverty he portrays in the movie. He wants revenge, which might be understandable, but in close-knit communities such as this one, revenge rarely ends well, or the way you want it to. Marcello’s demands for money or any kind of recognition or apology go awry, and so he smashes Simone’s motorbike. Not a good move. Things get from bad to worse, and with a lot of force and patience and luck, Marcello solves the Simone problem; he thinks he does the community a favor – he does, but it does not put him back into their good graces.
Whether you like the movie depends on your opinion about whether Marcello deserves his revenge, and how far he is morally allowed to go in order to get even – if getting even is something worthy to be attained. Yes, Simone owes Marcello money and gratitude and an apology, but Simone does not have it in him to see Marcello in such a light. There is also a rift between the friendly dog-groomer from before, and the vengeful ex-con. I don’t fully believe that change of character, but it doesn’t spoil the movie for me. It’s just that, towards the end of the movie, I ran out of empathy for Marcello. Dogman lives on its remarkable performances, but a popcorn movie it is not.