You’ve got to solve your own problem.
Would anyone miss Simone (Edoardo Pesce) if he disappeared? No. He’s a heavy that possesses no positive impact on the impoverished Italian community in which he resides. Addicted to cocaine and wielding a temper that always keeps fresh cuts and bruises on his face despite everyone knowing you cannot get the best of him in a fight, those forced to be part of his social circle would rejoice if they never saw him again. It’s so bad that the disgruntled videogame casino owner (Francesco Acquaroli) offers to put a hit out on him. He can think of no alternative to prevent the inevitable pain wrought than to have the local entrepreneurs join forces and take responsibility for his permanent demise since two-month jail stints only make him angrier.
Simone isn’t the lead in Matteo Garrone‘s latest pitch-black drama Dogman, however. He’s not some antihero we’re supposed to empathize with or a villain we want to be killed by a group of decent men who’ve had enough. Garrone and his co-writers Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso instead use him as both a contrast and barrier for whom the meek Marcello (Marcello Fonte) must combat. This dog groomer is everything Simone is not: weak, quiet, unassuming, and non-confrontational. When Francesco puts his assassination offer on the table, Marcello says nothing. Why? Because his entire identity is built around being liked. And even though Simone terrorizes him as much as the others (demanding cocaine with the threat of violence as payment), Marcello still inexplicably hopes to be his friend.
The psychology behind this choice is an interesting one because it’s never for the “right” reasons. Marcello isn’t saving face so Simone doesn’t wreck his shop or hurt his young daughter Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria). He’s not attempting to keep the peace locally either since he’s given multiple opportunities to simply walk away and let Simone die, but rather chooses to save him. Maybe Marcello believes enough good deeds will cajole this brute into finally giving him what he’s owed and more. Maybe he’s deluded enough to think Simone will throw money his way and provide an escape from this run-down neighborhood. None of that tracks, though. Marcello loves his community and has worked tirelessly to become an integral piece within it. So I guess he’s just dumb.
Do I actually assume this? No. I should since the film provides nothing to refute it, but Fonte is too good in the role to blindly dismiss him as an imbecile. Marcello is instead scared, naïve, and kind-hearted—attributes that ensure his choices render his troubles worse. I get it. Standing up to Simone is akin to a death sentence with no end to his forceful exploitation in sight. But enough must be enough at some point, right? There’s a sequence where Marcello is strong-armed into being Simone’s get-away driver only to discover the latter’s accomplice locked their victim’s dog in the freezer. Being a canine lover, Marcello re-breaks into the house himself to try saving the pooch. And yet he still willingly continues to help Simone afterwards.
I know it’s easy for me to say that Marcello should have contacted the police, but he should have. And if that truly would’ve been too much, he could have simply let Simone die. I’d get it if Garrone and company gave us a reveal that the two were brothers or cousins or something—a personal connection to contextualize Marcello’s Stockholm syndrome—but there’s none to be had. So despite our being told he loves this neighborhood and values the respect he’s earned as an equal to the other businessmen on the block, we’re somehow supposed to trust he’d throw it all away for what? A couple hundred bucks? Another shakedown next week? A year of his life? Garrone is asking a lot if he thinks that’s possible.
He’s asking for even more if he believes we’ll then want to pull for Marcello once the second half of the film turns from the character being one hundred percent compliant to wanting revenge. Without spoiling what occurs, Simone screws Marcello over. While there’s no disputing that fact, however, Marcello still had an out he refused to take. So rather than side with him and his newfound courage to stand his ground, I really couldn’t have cared less. Did Simone deserve to be put in his place? Sure. But I had no affinity for Marcello as far as him being the one to do it. If anything, him being that person only works towards ruining his life further. Garrone isn’t therefore looking for redemption. He wants abject despair.
Dogman is a success in that regard because it suffocates with its bleakness. Even though Garrone desperately wants us acknowledge what a “good” person Marcello is (helping neighbors, loving his daughter, and treating pets like humans), he makes it impossible to like the man. At a certain point I was rooting for Simone because his little friend’s actions keep asking for more abuse. You can only refuse to help yourself so many times before your fate becomes as much your own fault as the external forces pressing down. To then have Garrone ask us to champion Marcello later for finding his courage too late and inevitably turning into someone who’s just as bad as the guy he hates proves disingenuous. What then was the point of everything?
Is the moral of the story that “good guys” are as susceptible to cruelty as “bad guys”? Is it to sympathize for the plight of the weak and them being helpless to survive unless turning themselves over to their darkest impulses—unwittingly or not? I don’t really buy any of that. It’s a shame too because Fonte is fantastic and very deserving of the Best Actor Award at Cannes. How he carries his fear and lets it lead him to self-destruction is authentically drawn. But if the narrative he’s beholden to won’t let me invest in his journey, it’s all for naught. Marcello merely becomes a hapless rube broken down by circumstances he helped create. And everything he does to retain his humanity turns out to be meaningless.
 A scene from DOGMAN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Adamo Dionisi and Marcello Fonte in DOGMAN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Marcello Fonte in DOGMAN, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by Greta De Lazzaris. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.