The title of “Dogman” denotes what the movie’s lowly hero does for a living: He washes dogs. It also describes his place in the cramped social hierarchy of his bedraggled Italian seaside town. In an eerie sense, a dog-man is simply what Marcello is.
The movie is a parable about what happens if we allow the takers, the bullies, and the ego-monsters to dictate our lives unopposed; as such, it’s relevant to history and to today’s headlines. We first see Marcello (Marcello Fonte) at his pet-grooming business, using a mop to shampoo a viciously snapping cur before mellowing the animal out with a friendly blow-dry. Small and stooped, he has a knack for handling the hard cases, but only on the canine level. Like much of the town, Marcello is in thrall to Simone (Eduardo Pesce), a swaggering thug who’d be like Bluto in an old “Popeye” cartoon if Bluto were terrifying instead of funny.
Simone is a beast of pure alpha-male appetite, taking what he wants and slugging anyone who resists. He’s bad for the neighborhood and he’s bad for business: The local merchants sit in cafes and discuss whether to bring in outside muscle to deal with the problem.
Marcello, by contrast, has an odd, obsequious relationship with the brute. He provides Simone with cocaine and allows himself to be dragged along on various acts of mayhem, including a late-night break-in. Yet we also see Marcello’s love for his young daughter (Alida Baldari Calabria), and when Simone visits an act of cruelty on a victim’s Chihuahua, it’s Marcello who sneaks back to right the situation in a wordless and touching scene.
Verily, Marcello is the skittishly worshipful Jack Russell to Simone’s snarling pit bull (don’t @ me, pit bull lovers), and the mystery of “Dogman” is why he allows the reign of terror to continue when he has more than one opportunity to stop it. It’s a mystery the movie never quite solves, to its benefit and detriment. The filmmaker is Matteo Garrone, whose 2008 epic, “Gomorra,” depicts the crime families of Naples with pitiless scorn; “Dogman” is more overtly a fable but partakes of a similar disenchanted, even exhausted view of humanity.
Garrone sets his tale in Villaggio Coppola, a failed “utopian residential area” built in the 1960s up the coast from Naples. The architecture is old New Brutalism on the verge of decay, a fitting arena for the Simones of the world to exert their tinpot power. But it’s his toady you remember. Fonte took the best actor award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and he has the soulful eyes of a different movie Marcello — Mastroianni — set into the face of a benevolent weasel.
The movie convinces us that the hero sees and understands Simone’s evil even as he continues to enable it — even as he allows his own life to be ruined. “Dogman” ends with a paroxysm of cathartic violence and an eerie echo of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (also with Mastroianni). and then it lets go a long, long exhale, as if Garrone is daring us to find a moral, some tidy lesson to take home, where there simply is none. We’re just human animals who tail after the biggest, baddest dog on the block until it’s too late to run home.
Directed by Matteo Garrone. Written by Garrone, Ugo Chiti, and Massimo Gaudisio. Starring Marcello Fonte, Edoardo Pesce. At Kendall Square. 103 minutes. Unrated (as R, language, bloody violence). In Italian, with subtitles.