Matteo Garrone’s “Dogman,” a potent, affecting crime fable set in a seaside Italian town, signals a lot in its great opening scene. In a sparsely lit, windowless room our thriller-conditioned brains might associate with the hidden handling of captives, a pit bull menacingly snarls in a basin while Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a wiry, patient dog groomer, tries to clean him with a long-handled brush.
Other dogs look on from cages nearby, their rapt faces indicating this might be a terrifying mismatch of willpower. But when the blow dryer comes out, the rush of soothing air hilariously does the trick, and Marcello has a relaxed spa customer on his hands. Who’s the good boy now?
A divorced father with a mutt’s eager face, Marcello has a way with canines. But in the crumbling resort town where he operates his modest caretaking business, dealing with human beings presents a thornier range of interactions.
You wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking Garrone, who made the vibrating 2008 crime syndicate thriller “Gomorrah,” has waded into “Umberto D” territory here, calling back Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist classic about a lonely senior and the four-legged companion who’s literally his heart on a leash. Except he’s also added a healthy dollop of Scorsese-ish thuggishness and Leone-tinged vengeance.
That’s because Marcello’s fate is wrapped up in his attachment to a truly dangerous character. Though he happily dotes on his young daughter Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria) in his off-hours and has a solid relationship with the nearby business owners still propping up the town, Marcello is also hopelessly tied up in the lawbreaking schemes of local ex-boxer Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), whose violent bullying has the entire village in a cowed state.
Marcello’s arrangement with Simone is mostly transactional: Marcello procures coke for the broken-nosed brute, who, in turn, cuts the dog groomer in on the proceeds from his petty thefts. Or doesn’t. Simone calls the shots. But you can tell Marcello also thinks he has the ability to soothe this savage, or at least rectify some of his gnarlier impulses.
In one tense, crazy sequence, hearing Simone brag after a burglary that he stuffed somebody’s yapping chihuahua in the freezer, Marcello rushes to the scene of the crime, shimmies up a drain pipe, and risks his own neck to thaw out the pint-sized victim. (The frozen-dog visual is initially horrific, but don’t worry: the one-take rescue cleverly makes room for effects sleight-of-hand.)
“Dogman” is, like a lot of memorable crime stories, more about the way people live than how they suffer or inflict suffering, and in detailing the repercussions of Marcello’s friendship with Simone, the viewer teeters between exasperation at this kind man’s worrisome gestures, and a thirst for vengeance (which will definitely be addressed).
But even when the story (credited to Garrone and six others) strains credibility, Fonte — who won best actor at Cannes last year for “Dogman” — is spectacular, a marvel of misguided compassion and absorbed pain, the animal lover who sees a rabid cur as a future friend instead of something to run from. The threat he faces is just as compelling, with Pesce shrewd enough to realize Simone’s antsy hovering is often scarier than any physical explosiveness.
“Dogman” is also vividly shot, in that Garrone and cinematographer Nicolaj Bruel somehow make rundown, de-populated Castel Volturno (north of Naples) look both hopeless and picturesque, like a yellowed brochure that still hints at past glory. With its abandoned storefronts, empty swaths of sand and forbidding apartment towers, there’s no question it’s now a desolate, uninviting place, but we also frequently see it as Marcello does, as a home he’s in danger of losing if he doesn’t do something about that wild beast on the loose.
At its best, when we can live “Dogman” through Marcello’s eyes, the movie keeps reminding you of that opening, of people and animals, menace and kindness, and the cages we sometimes don’t realize we’ve made for ourselves.
In Italian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Starts Friday, Landmark Nuart, West L.A.