Dogman, starting from its title, is structured like a superhero origin story: the protagonist’s humble origins, the humiliations endured, the evil antagonist and the desire to vindicate and prove himself, are all elements that Marcello (Marcello Fonte) and the average superhero share, except the results are dramatically different. If anything, Dogman proves how harmful the superhero rhetoric can be. Marcello is, and remains throughout the story, a little man. He works as a dog groomer in the shop that he owns and that he has called “Dogman.”
Director Matteo Garrone carefully constructs this story in order to elicit maximum sympathy: it is essential that Dogman be likable, in order for the film to work as it does. So, he presents Marcello to us as a loving, caring, and pathetic person, but never pathetic enough for us to make fun of him. In fact, in the way in which he presents him, Garrone achieves an unlikely, but ultimately, successful balance between ironic detachment and empathy. In the opening scene, Marcello is visually ridiculed by the comparison between his tiny, slouched body and the size and violent energy of the dogs to which he is completely devoted and which he calls diminutive, cutesy nicknames. In another scene, this devotion is exposed in light of his loneliness, as Marcello is shown sitting alone in the darkness, watching TV and sharing his meal with one of his dogs, which is eating from the same plate as him. This, along with the scenes with his daughter, are the moments in which Marcello ceases to be a caricature and becomes an emotionally charged character that the audience can feel for.
We quickly learn that he is divorced and short for money, to the point that he runs a side business dealing drugs. One of his clients , Simone, is a big, violent brute who terrorizes the neighborhood, but has developed an unlikely and unbalanced friendship with Marcello, which is cause for concern amongst his other friends. Nevertheless, Marcello keeps defending him and caring for him. Again, in the portrayal of their relationship, Garrone indulges in some visual irony by constantly highlighting the difference in size and attitude between the two characters, often confining them in small spaces, consistently framing Simone as if he were one of Dogman’s dogs. The result is often grotesquely funny, and yet it never overtakes the dramatic element which lies at the core of their relationship, and which will be crucial in the development of the plot and of the character: Marcello’s desire to be liked. He goes out of his way to appease everyone from his friends, his daughter, and his clients, to Simone. Unfortunately for him, this also translates into a tendency to be belittled and taken advantage of. This does not seem to be a problem until his struggles to be on everybody’s side prove to be unrealistic: in fact, Simone wants his help in robbing one a shop belonging to one of Marcello’s friends.
Despite Marcello being openly opposed to the plan, Simone traps him into it and robs the shop. Not only is Marcello accused of having betrayed his friends, but he is also led by his loyalty to Simone to confess to a crime that he did not commit, and to serve jail time in order to protect him. When he is released after a year, he expects to be treated as a hero – only to find that his friends have shunned him and Simone has no intention of giving him his share of the money. Confronted with the failure of his set of values, Dogman ceases to be a pathetic, but ultimately lovable character and begins his transition into an anti-hero. In the face of repeated humiliation and violence, he decides to get revenge on Simone in order to win back his friends’ affection and admiration. By this point, he has repeatedly seen his values fail in the face of violence and regurgitates all the violence he has received by exerting it on Simone. The scene is brilliantly chilling, with Marcello becoming more and more sadistic and Simone more beastly, this time with no trace of irony.
In fact, as the power dynamic changes and Simone becomes the victim, the depiction of Marcello becomes exceptionally nuanced and, paired with the incredible performance by Fonte, complicates the relationship between character and audience. Throughout the film, we have felt for and with Marcello’s humiliation, and we have learned to identify Simone as the enemy, so it feels right that he should pay. However, seeing our little, lovable, funny wannabe hero transfixed by madness and blind rage is alienating, if oddly satisfying. On one hand we are supposed to root for him, but on the other what he is doing is truly gruesome. Garrone leans heavily into the display of violence, but also expertly manages and controls its use. In fact, he leaves out some particularly harsh details from the original story – the real Dogman has tortured and mutilated Simone for hours – but most importantly, he frames it consistently to Marcello’s initial characterization as a people-pleaser. Immediately after the killing, he is desperate to show his friends what he has done, confident that it will finally grant him the approval he is after. The realization that it will not dawns on him slowly, and Fonte’s facial expressions mark every step of it, captured scene by a heart-wrenchingly long take.
Dogman is ultimately an exercise in characterization in which the victim, instead of becoming the avenger, becomes the torturer, making us constantly question our alignment. And yet, it is also a deeply human tale, told with empathy and compassion. Despite its grimness (highlighted by the desolate industrial setting), it has a tenderness at its core which rescues it from becoming totally alienating and makes it one of the richest and most humane superhero/villain origin story in years, despite (or because) Dogman not being either one of them.