Scene from Dogman, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Imagine an Italy of dilapidated beach fronts, trash on the street, tetanus-rusted seesaws creaking in the wind. Sunlight streaming through busted blinds; gangly, rat-tailed drug-runners instead of gondoliers. Imagine the kind of place where angry men owe angrier men money, where angel-winged women strip on stage or glower from kitchen tables.

Such abandon and seedy ruin mark the filmscapes of Matteo Garrone, whose Dogman premiered in New York on April 12. Opening with a shot for the canine ages (the crime drama nabbed the “Palm Dog” at Cannes), a dazzling white pit bull lunges his jaws at dog groomer, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), the film’s good-hearted protagonist. “Amore!” Marcello, seemingly half the animal’s size, sings. “Easy, sweetie. I’ll give you a shampoo ….” As he lathers the massive mastiff with a mop from a yard away, their kenneled companions watch with a mix of what looks like curiosity and pity. Moments later, the same creature is basking in the warmth of a blow dry, transformed from vicious to hilariously indulged.

Marcello Fonte in Dogman, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo by Greta De Lazzaris, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Balancing verité grit with sometimes-howling humor, Dogman takes a subtler, tenderer turn than Garrone fans might anticipate. “I was almost ready to start to shoot, and then the producer fortunately changed his mind,” the director said of the movie’s 12-year delay, in an interview last fall. “Fortunately, because the script was not good enough. I was not a father at the time, and an important part of the movie is the relationship between Marcello and his daughter. As I went back and changed the script, it reflects how I was changing over the years.”

Marcello’s devotion to daughter Alida — coaching her on primping a pageant poodle, going snorkeling in the Mediterranean — carries over to his broader compassion for the defenseless. (His Chihuahua-defrosting skills alone are worth the price of a ticket.) Before being cast as Marcello, Fonte worked as a guardian at a Roman theater, playing bit movie and television roles on the side. Dwarfed at five foot three by both man and beast, the actor boasts the weathered sinew of an Egon Schiele figure, but he is splendidly nimble on the move. As evidenced in Garrone’s 2008 gangster epic Gomorrah, the director loves a man who can scramble up a drainage pipe, and Fonte doesn’t disappoint. “Marcello put the movie on his shoulders,” the director phrased it, and the battle scars brocade his visage as he seems to age before our eyes.

Adamo Dionisi and Marcello Fonte in Dogman, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

As in Gomorrah, drugs flow through Dogman as an inevitable, if banal, form of social currency — Marcello’s esteem among his soccer pals hardly stems from his footwork on the field. But unlike the previous film, Dogman plays like a blessedly (albeit brutally) simple revenge fable, our hero’s tenderness gradually tested by his loyalty to coke-fueled tyrant Simoncino, a man who busts a slot machine with his forehead before hounding his featherweight friend for a hit. No two men could be more different in physique and demeanor, and several critics have compared their relationship to that between dog and master. But such a conflation neglects the layers of ego, cunning, and masculine power plays that culminate in one of the most unforgettable acts of solo vigilantism to appear onscreen since The Revenant. Garrone, who co-wrote the script, explained in the aforementioned interview that, “Marcello remained trapped in a mechanism of violence till the end — he becomes violent to save himself.”

With its cynophilia, unflinching lens, and cast of mostly unknowns, Dogman easily draws comparisons to one of the best Neorealist films of the last century: Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D from 1952. Both Garrone and De Sica throw the realities of class inequality into bleak relief, and both orbit protagonists (and pups) plagued by what De Sica revered as “sorrowful dignity.” But the similarities end there. As the late Roger Ebert described Umberto, played by septuagenarian university lecturer Carlo Battisti: “He is observant, understanding, sympathetic. He doesn’t rail against the injustice of the world, but is simply determined to defend the corner he occupies with his dog.” Not so for Fonte’s Marcello, whose redemption comes less from staid endurance than newfound indignation.

Marcello Fonte in Dogman, a Magnolia Pictures release (photo by Greta De Lazzaris, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

In the film’s final scene, the Dogman carries the world “on his shoulders” to a shockingly literal degree. The film ends with only the sounds of the sea for comfort, a dog wagging his dirty tail, seeking a spot to lie down.

Dogman is playing at the Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, West Village, Manhattan) and various venues nationwide.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....