Marcello Fonte, who was working as a caretaker before he was cast in the film, won best actor at Cannes Film Festival for his intense portrayal of the good-hearted main character in the movie “Dogman.”
The movie combines the modern western with a classic fable. The conflict tells of Marcello, played by Fonte, a good man who loves dogs and grooms them for a living, who is tempted by a demonic, half-crazed brute to steal. His reward is to be put through a constant onslaught by the thug, who always wants more.
The Dogman shop is a dog-grooming parlor, tucked into an economically depressed part of town, near Castel Volturno, in the Province of Caserta. The architectural patchwork of buildings mirrors the rough patchwork of characters who run the local pool halls and pawn shops. They are fiercer than any of the dogs in Marcello’s shop. In the opening scene, Marcello tries to sooth a snarling dog that is just waiting for a chance to sink its teeth into him. He chains the beast to a large metal sink and is reduced to shampooing the dog with a mop, precisely capturing the intense film’s balance between scary and humorous, as well as gritty and touching.
In this depressed local economy, where fights among the locals are commonplace and everyone seems to have a simmering petty vendetta, Marcello seems out of place. He is a divorced, but devoted father and exudes a sense of decency in an otherwise lawless town. It is the same image one used to see in westerns of the 1940s and 50s – the lone man against the town of ruthless gunmen.
The real danger arrives in the form of a menacing hulk named Simone, brilliantly played by Edoardo Pesce. He is a loose cannon with a short fuse and has all of the stability of a shaken bottle of nitroglycerine. Marcello is the only one who seems unafraid of approaching him. The dogman needs additional money to afford to take his daughter on a trip and Simone tempts Marcello into larceny. Punctuated throughout the film are touches that show Marcello’s heart is in the right place. After burglarizing a home with Simone, he learns that the thug has left the homeowner’s yappy dog in the freezer to shut it up. Marcello then returns to the scene of the crime to rescue the near frozen pooch.
Before being cast by Matteo Garrone of “Gomorrah” fame in “Dogman,” Marcello Fonte had played only minor parts. The diminutive actor was an extra in Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” in 2002 and also had a small role in Alice Rohrwacher’s 2011 “Corpo Celeste.” Fonte moved to Rome as a teenager to try make his name in the movies. “I made all the mistakes possible, there’s not one I missed,” the slightly-built thespian said.
As an example, when he landed the small role in “Gangs of New York,” he had never heard of its director Martin Scorsese and thought he was Scottish. Garrone met Fonte by accident at a social center where the filmmaker went to spot talent for parts in a play. Marcello was the caretaker at the facility and was listening to the auditions one day when one of the selected amateur actors fell ill. He took his place and the facial features of the 5’3” actor reminded Garrone of Buster Keaton, the famous silent movie era star. From there, he was cast as the “Dogman.”
Marcello is the unlikely hero of “Dogman.” Short and stooped, with droopy-lidded big eyes, he looks out at the world with pleading innocence. Fonte’s portrayal is that of the quintessential 98-pound weakling, but one who shows his resolve when pushed to the edge in this intense drama.
For “Dogman,” Fonte spent three months in a dog parlor to learn how to groom the pooches. The film is loosely based on a true story that occurred in Rome during the late 1980s. Fonte’s character remains a sympathetic figure to the end, but don’t view this as a sympathy vote. At Cannes, “Dogman” was a triumph for director Matteo Garrone and a new star has risen in the case of Marcello Fonte.