Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone on Dogman

Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone returns with Dogman, the story of a friendly dog-groomer who's drawn into violence by the local coke-head

Feature by Patrick Gamble | 12 Oct 2018
  • Dogman

WC Fields famously said “never work with animals or children,” but Matteo Garrone, the director behind Gomorrah, Reality and Tale of Tales disagrees. “I love working with dogs and kids,” he enthuses as we sit down to discuss his latest film, Dogman. “They always do something unexpected. That’s what I want from all my actors; I work with them to arrive at a moment where something truly unique appears.”

A culmination of the dark themes that have permeated the director’s previous work, Dogman is a film that snarls with anger and resentment towards everyday abuses of power. A terrifying portrayal of an honest man trying to cling to his principles in the face of selfish immorality, Garrone’s latest follows Marcello (Marcello Fonte), the proprietor of a rundown dog grooming parlour in a dilapidated seaside town that’s thriving with petty thievery. “It's a frontier village,” explains Garrone, when asked in which part of Southern Italy the film takes place. “The setting doesn’t really matter, because the film is a modern western, but it's a place that's very familiar to me. I shot The Embalmer there in 2001 and I love this area. It's such a metaphysical place. You never know where you are; it’s a landscape where everything seems possible.”

Despite starring alongside a cast of loveable canines, Fonte shines. Something of a cross-breed himself, he combines the humility of Pierrot The Sad Clown with Buster Keaton’s physical grace and melancholic expression; an affable loser with, yes, a dogged edge. “It was a tragic coincidence,” Garrone explains when asked how he discovered his leading man. “He comes from a poor family in Calabria. When we met him he was the guardian of a squat. There was a theatre group of ex-prisoners rehearsing there and my casting director went to watch them perform because we were looking for some tough guys to be in the film. However, just before he turned up, one of the company died in the bathroom from a brain aneurysm. Because he was always in the house, and knew all the lines, Marcello stepped up and took his place.”

With his sunken features and unflagging smile, Fonte is perfectly cast as Marcello, an affable Italian everyman who we first encounter during a brief but charming sequence in which he attempts to bathe an aggressive mastiff. Its hackles raised and teeth bared, the dog growls and snaps at Marcello as he attempts to wash it with a rag attached to a broom. The dog eventually warms to Marcello’s gentle demeanour, but another of his customers is a lot harder to tame. To supplement his meagre income Marcello sells cocaine to some of the villagers, including local bully and former boxer Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce). He’s Marcelo’s best customer, but he stopped paying in cash a long time ago. Then one evening the pair’s business relationship turns sour, with Simoncino taking advantage of Marcelo’s kind nature and dragging him into a world of violence and criminality.

Dogman lives and dies on the audience’s ability to empathise with Marcello, something Garrone was cautious of when he cast Fonte. “When I first met him he had only done a couple of small acting gigs, so we had to work really hard on his character. But it was clear from the beginning that his personality was perfect for the role. His tenderness and his humanity were crucial to this movie, because it’s the story of a peaceful man that loses his innocence when confronted with the mechanisms of violence.”

Garrone made a name for himself with Gomorrah, his brutal portrait of the Neapolitan crime organisation known as the Camorra. However, despite signalling a return to the Mafia controlled streets of Southern Italy, the focus of Dogman is not crime or violence. Instead it’s about the people who inhabit these places, with Garrone placing Marcello firmly in the philosophical spotlight of his camera. “I’ve always been interested in the human being,” Garrone explains, when we ask about his decision to make a film inspired by a gruesome 1980s homicide case. “I wanted to explore the conflicts and desires of this man, as well as his fears. The true story behind this film is famous in Italy because it’s about torture. It’s an incredibly dark story, but for me Marcello is not a character that could inflict this type of suffering on someone, it’s not possible. Yes, there’s plenty of violence, but this isn’t a splatter movie, it's a film about a man who just wants his dignity back.”

Despite returning to the heightened social-realism of Gomorrah after the magic and wonder of his violent reimagining of 17th century Neapolitan allegories Tale of Tales, Dogman still retains the look and feel of an old-fashioned parable. Simoncino is a modern-day monster, a raging cokehead with an intimidating physique. He’s the Goliath to Marcello’s David – or perhaps more fittingly, the Rottweiler to his Pomeranian, something beautifully epitomised in a scene involving a half-frozen Chihuahua that demonstrates Simoncino’s cold, unthinking cruelty and Marcello’s tenderness. When Simoncino later informs Marcello that he plans to smash a hole through the wall of his parlour to commit a robbery in the jewellers next door, we already know he’s powerless to resist. The relationship between Marcello and Simoncino can be read as a metaphor for a cruel world in which those bred with strength and power always look to dominate over the weak. But Garrone is desperate to distance himself from being described as a political filmmaker. “I don’t like these type of thesis movies,” he says, “but it’s true that when you tell a story connected to reality you become connected to that place politically. So… let’s say I am political; just without really knowing it.”

From The Embalmer, a romance set in the world of taxidermy, to the grotesque fantasies in Tale of Tales, Garrone’s films have always inhabited a space between fantasy and realism, offering audiences a commentary on human nature that extends far beyond their surreal surroundings. This relationship between reality and the imagined appears to be key to solving the riddles behind all of Garrone's films. “All elements of my work are linked to fairy tales,” he says. “Dogman is very much a modern fairy tale, but all my films try to talk about these archetypes of human beings. Gomorrah, like Tale of Tales, was also a collection of dark fables; all of those kids believed they were playing in a movie, but they lost their innocence the moment they realised it was real life.”

For his next project, Garrone is returning to the world of fairytales, with a live-action version of Carlo Collodi’s classic Pinocchio. “I’m working on it now, and it will shoot next year. My competitors Disney are making their own Pinocchio here in the UK, but I hope mine is slightly different, because if not then I’m dead.” A gritty adaptation of the original novel, rather than an animated popularisation of it, Garrone’s Pinocchio will also be set in Southern Italy and will see the director reunited with Toni Servillo who stars as Geppetto. “I made my first storyboard of Pinocchio when I was 6. I’ve been connected to this story since I was a child and there’s a part of Pinocchio in all my movies; my characters always seem to find themselves crashing against the violence of the world they inhabit.”

Released 19 Oct by Curzon Artificial Eye