Some story templates are so ancient they become so immediate and visceral we know them in our bones. When we hear such stories, our enjoyment is related more to the context—setting, details and colorful side characters—than to the rendering of the story. Matteo Garrone’s Dogman is just this sort of fable, pitting the consummate underdog against the veritable giant in a retelling of David and Goliath set in the ruins of what was once an Italian vacation spot.

Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is the diminutive everyman, with a comical hang-dog face and weighing in at perhaps 130 pounds. Contrasting the hero is Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a hulking brute with an Ivan Drogo buzzcut and fists the size of Christmas hams. Marcello is a businessman—a doting-upon-his-subjects dog groomer—in a forgotten, decaying and distant Roman suburb, and he has formed something of a community with his economic neighbors. He and the other men, who run gold-for-cash shops, pool halls and other similar not-quite-reputable ventures, lunch and gossip every day and play pickup soccer in the evening. Marcello then retires to his modest apartment and shares pasta with his dog while watching TV.

Simone is often the source of the other men’s gossip. He is both part of their little community as well as its chief antagonist. He is a petty criminal and drug addict (Marcello is his supplier, muddying up the hero’s good guy, try-hard image) prone to violent outbursts. No one knows how to deal with Simone; this is not the sort of neighborhood where people call the cops, but his physical prowess is invincible. Think of the Mountain from the imminently returning “Game of Thrones” for an analogous figure. Eventually, Simone bullies Marcello into participating in a burglary scheme and things reach a breaking point.

Dogman is enjoyable less for its refashioned fable of a narrative and more for Garrone’s immense talents as a craftsman. In fact, the plot leans too much on Marcello’s questionable decision-making and has too little fidelity to each character’s essence to make sense under intense scrutiny. The broad strokes are right, but, again, the David versus Goliath story structure is at least 1600 years old, so the broad strokes are quite sufficiently audience-tested.

What really stands out here is the cinematography. Garrone proved with Gomorrah that he could photograph the Italian cityscape to capture a mood–and that he was good at large-scale biblical metaphors. But here he does one better, tying his images so seamlessly into the broader screen cultural lexicon. The establishing shots of Marcello’s shopfront, for instance, are pure “Breaking Bad,” telling viewers even in the opening scenes that there is a sinister, criminal undercurrent to this seemingly standard façade. Marcello is never Heisenberg, but Garrone makes it obvious he is not as harmless as cinema’s first great dog groomer, Dumb and Dumber’s Harry, either. When the camera lingers on the abandoned amusement park train in the sand in front of Marcello’s shop, the film echoes early Fellini. Other shots dovetail the architectural optimism of ‘50s-era Italian neorealism by instead showing urban decay in the exposed rebar frame of the crumbling concrete arches that line the shopfronts. The promise of an Italy on the rise so familiar to every cinephile has been betrayed and given way to an implacable rot that explains the blackness at the heart of this cast of characters.

Although it’s inspired by the true crime story of a dog groomer who took vengeance on a bully in the ‘80s, the film cultivates a sense of timelessness. Characters drive current-model cars, but on the other hand, communicate by word-of-mouth and seem to lack cell phones. This is part of the nature of fable: it could be set in bronze age Syria or Euro-zone Italy. Far from perfect, Dogman is undeniably gorgeous in its depiction of a seedy Italian town full of men living in the liminal zone between decency and outright criminality, even if the motivations of its protagonist are hard to determine.

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