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Dogman: Film Review

Dogman is an intense psychological thriller inspired by an horrific murder that took place in Rome in 1988, known as the 'Er Canaro' crime. Although this 2018 film contains some violence it sensibly leaves out all the gruesome details of the actual events of 30 years earlier; instead the drama and tension in the movie focuses on the relationship between the nasty bully and the intimidated dog groomer.

The director, Matteo Garrone, also directed the film Gomorrah, not to be confused with the subsequent television series of the same name. Both were written and conceived by Roberto Saviano but the earlier film was darker, more depressing and much more realistic than the very entertaining but much glossier five season series.

The dog is certainly big but the actor is also quite small at 5'3"

Like the Gomorrah film, Dogman is also a gritty piece of filmmaking and proves that even on a budget of only 4 million euros you can make a very good movie. The shooting location of Villagio Coppola on the coast just north-west of Naples was an inspired choice for the setting but at the same time a sad testament to the legacy of corruption and malfeasance in much of southern Italy during the post war construction boom.

A previously beautiful coastline with a centuries old pine forest was fraudulently bulldozed to make way for eight ugly apartment blocks when only a small fraction of the development was in fact legally permitted. Unsurprisingly these awful buildings eventually fell prey to squatters, crime, filth and large scale abandonment. A terrible outcome for this shoreline in the Province of Caserta but the perfect backdrop for Dogman and in fact not too dissimilar to the Magliana Nuova area of Rome in the 1980s where the real dog groomer Er Canaro committed his crime.

Villaggio Coppola. Environmental vandalism writ large on the Italian coastline

The star of the film was, and still is, a relatively unknown actor by the name of Marcello Fonte whose very short stature and unusual features worked to his advantage in obtaining the role but he needed a bit of luck also.

With only bit parts on his resume Marcello was not a full time actor and, at the time of casting, the Cinema Palazzo in Rome was providing him with much-needed work as the set-up man, electrician, lighting technician and sound engineer, a bit of everything in fact. It was there that Matteo Garrone saw him in a theater performance when Marcello stepped into the shoes of one of the actors who had died suddenly during rehearsals.

Marcello Fonte on the stage in Cannes after winning the Best Actor category in 2018

Unfortunate for the deceased actor but a stroke of fortune for Marcello because the Dogman director was immediately taken by his presence on stage, accentuated by his very facially expressive method of acting. Marcello grabbed the opportunity with both hands and the role of the dog groomer in Dogman effectively propelled him in an instant from stage handyman to winner of the Palme d’Or as best leading actor at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival.

It was well-deserved recognition for his suberb low key performance in Dogman where he demonstrates an uncanny ability to convey deep emotion while saying very little. It's not an exaggeration to say that his acting makes the entire film.

The director Matteo Garrone flanked by his two main actors

Dogman was also selected to represent Italy at the 2019 Academy Awards in the category of Best Foreign Language Film but didn’t even make the top ten list of pre-selected films, which only goes to show that very often the Cannes Film Festival is a better judge of content than Hollywood, especially when evaluating offbeat movies like this.

I won’t divulge any details of the plot or the ending but it’s a taught, well-paced and cleverly scripted film with good acting and good directing and with more than its fair share of surprises. In Italy it was rated as suitable for those over 14 so there is nothing particularly horrifying in the movie. And as the film is about a dog groomer there are also some clever canine performances to enjoy.


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