Bullied dog groomer heads down predictable path in doleful 'Dogman'

CANINE CLIENTELE: Marcello Fonte and one of his four-legged co-stars in "Dogman." Magnolia Pictures

Marcello Fonte has a face for the ages. Elongated and sorrowful, punctuated by an ingratiating, bucktoothed grin, it's a face that inspires both trust and sympathy, a form of instant compassion that is sorely needed for a character who doesn't always deserve it.

In "Dogman," Fonte plays another Marcello: a dog groomer living in a dusty, decrepit Italian beach town, where he has a thriving business tending to an eclectic canine clientele, while dealing a little bit of coke on the side. His friends in this nearly all-male bastion are similarly just-this-side-of-shady, but their prime interest is getting together for pickup soccer games. The trouble lies with Simone (Edoardo Pesce), a hulking criminal and drug addict who is every bit as volatile and explosively hostile as the dog who snaps and snarls at Marcello in the film's opening scene.

The driving question of "Dogman" is why the gentle-natured Marcello allows himself to be manipulated and bullied by the thuggish Simone. It's true that Marcello needs the money from their occasional petty thefts, to pay for the scuba-diving excursions he goes on with his adored young daughter. But as Simone's behavior becomes more erratic and Marcello's forbearance even more incomprehensible, it's clear that the meek animal-lover sees his alpha-male tormentor as one more ungovernable beast to tame.

Directed and co-written by Matteo Garrone, whose 2008 film "Gomorrah" is one of the finest movies ever made about the criminal underworld, "Dogman" exhibits the filmmaker's cooly observant style, which favors long, uninterrupted takes in which human behavior is carefully framed within a strikingly expressive environment. In this case, the atmosphere of sparse desolation – "Dogman" was filmed in the nearly abandoned seaside town of Villaggio Coppola – only adds to the feeling of impending doom, as Marcello makes his hapless way from one misguided scheme to the next.

Reportedly, "Dogman" is based on a real-life story that happened in 1988, with even more gruesome details than the ones dramatized here, including some bloodily graphic beat-downs and a climactic scene of torture. (Not to worry: The gorgeous dogs who co-star in the film act primarily as a barking or dolefully gazing Greek chorus.) By the film's sickening finale, what has been a metaphorically rich character study and exercise in neo-neorealism becomes muddled and unresolved.

As impressive as "Dogman" often is – not only with Fonte's Chaplin-esque lead performance, a bleakly evocative setting and moments of winsome humor but with a standout canine ensemble – it never quite delivers on its initial promise. "Dogman" begins as a compelling morality tale about the price of loyalty and personal compromise, but turns out to be a strangely indeterminate - and numbingly familiar – portrait of human nature at its most bestial and self-defeating.

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