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Five things to know about Dogman, Italy’s Oscar pick

Dogman, the latest film by Italian director Matteo Garrone, was selected this week as Italy's candidate for the foreign language Oscar. Here's why it's well worth a watch.

Five things to know about Dogman, Italy's Oscar pick
The promotional poster for Dogman, Matteo Garrone's film about a dog groomer turned murderer.

1. It's made by the man behind Gomorrah

If Matteo Garrone's name sounds familiar, it's because he's the director behind one of Italy's best-known films of recent years: Gomorrah, the Naples mafia saga based on Roberto Saviano's book of the same title.

That movie was also picked as Italy's entry to the Oscars, exactly ten years ago – but despite international success and a Grand Prix from the Cannes Film Festival, it failed to make the shortlist. 

Can Dogman do better? The Academy will announce its nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film on January 22nd, with the Oscar to be awarded on February 24th.

2. It's based on a true story that's even more shocking

Dogman is inspired by the real-life case of Er Canaro (“the dog keeper), a pet groomer and drug addict who, in 1988, murdered one of his criminal acquaintances in his Rome salon. 

The crime became infamous when the killer – real name Pietro De Negri – claimed to have subjected his victim, a local thug named Giancarlo Ricci, to hours of gruesome torture, including cutting off his fingers and tongue, castrating him and cutting open his skull. An autopsy later found that Ricci's injuries didn't match that account, with the supposed mutilations either inflicted after death or not at all.

If all that has left you feeling a little queasy, don't worry: Garrone doesn't claim to stick to the true story and most of the goriest details are left out of his version, which concentrates instead on the tense dynamic between bully and bullied.

That hasn't stopped some speculating that Dogman will prove too violent for genteel Academy voters, however: many suspect that it was Gomorrah's stark portrayal of mafia violence that cost that film a place on the shortlist and Dogman, while not especially graphic, is certainly psychologically tough – so much so that Italy's film board rated it over-14s only.

3. It was filmed in an Italian 'ghost town'

The real Canaro lived in Magliana, a historically deprived area in the south-west of Rome, and Garrone's version takes place in an unnamed neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital.

But the film was shot further south, in Villaggio Coppola: a town built on the coast of Campania in the 1960s as a seaside haven for holidaymakers and wealthy residents, but now largely abandoned. Erected without proper permits and accused of damaging the natural environment, most of the remaining houses have been left to scavengers and decay. Only a handful are occupied by determined residents and squatters.


A view of the sea from Villaggio Coppola. Photo: Mimmo Domenico Russo – CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr

The windswept seafront, close-set apartment blocks and rusting playground are the perfect backdrop for Garrone's bleak tale of crime, drugs and community.

4. Its star was discovered by chance

The film hangs on an extraordinary central performance by Marcello Fonte, who manages to bring pathos and even humour (honestly!) to the role of the titular Dogman.

Slight, funny-faced Fonte – who stands 1.6 metres tall, or 5'3″ – is hardly your typical leading man. Born in Calabria, he spent years taking tiny parts before Garrone gave him his big break, almost by accident. The director was talent-scouting among ex-prisoners when one auditionee fell ill; Fonte, who was part of a group occupying the community centre where the casting was taking place, stepped in.

Garrone was immediately impressed by the actor, who he has described as “the modern-day Buster Keaton, almost a silent movie actor”. Fonte's performance in Dogman, his first in a leading role, earned him the award for best actor at Cannes.


Marcello Fonte. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

5. Its canine cast are already award winners

Fonte isn't the only member of the cast to have a victory under their – ahem – collars already: the dogs who played his customers were rewarded for their contributions with the Palm Dog Award, the unofficial Cannes prize for best animal performance.

The award went to the entire canine cast and was accepted by Joy the chihuahua, who steals the show in a memorable scene involving the Dogman, a burglary and a freezer.

Other dogs featured include a bulldog, Great Dane, Hungarian sheepdog and a very fluffy poodle. We can confirm that they are all good boys.


Photo: Screengrab/YouTube

FILM

Venice Film Festival fights for impact amid coronavirus curbs and cancellations

What if you threw a film festival and nobody came?

Venice Film Festival fights for impact amid coronavirus curbs and cancellations
File photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP
That, in essence, is the challenge facing organisers of this year's Venice Film Festival, the glamorous annual competition where stars, critics, photographers and industry executives mingle on the bustling Lido, overlooking sandy beaches and the blue Adriatic.
   
Provided, of course, it's a normal year.
   
But in 2020, the world's oldest film festival is forced to walk a tightrope between preserving its lustre as the premier launch pad for Academy Award-winning films, while safely navigating the coronavirus crisis and averting the controversy over gender inequality that has dogged it in the past.
   
Opening Wednesday and continuing until September 12, the prestigious event now in its 77th year will be the first international film festival since the pandemic shuttered competitions around the world.
   
It has put in place a host of safety measures — from limited seating to thermal scanners, to a fan-free red carpet — to protect attendees as Covid-19 cases continue to climb in Italy and around the world.
   
In July, festival director Alberto Barbera declared the event “saved” as he announced the 18 films among the approximately 60 presented that would vie for the top award, the Golden Lion.
 
  
He promised that the festival would preserve the “liveliness of contemporary cinema”.
   
Despite its scaled-down size with theatre capacity reduced by about half, La Biennale di Venezia takes on greater importance this year due to the cancellation of rival film festivals across the globe, among them the glitzy Cannes Film Festival on the Cote d'Azur in France.
 
 
But just days ahead of the opening, organisers are scrambling to navigate uncharted territory amid uncertain attendance and last-minute cancellations.     
   
Whereas Brad Pitt, Meryl Streep and Scarlett Johansson provided the star firepower at last year's festival, ongoing travel restrictions — especially a travel ban from the United States into Europe — mean that most Hollywood elites will be no shows, along with actors and directors from China, India and South America.
   
Those arriving from outside Europe's Schengen zone will have to submit results of a Covid-19 test just before their departure, with a second test carried out in Venice, meaning that some attendees may have to cancel.
   
Earlier this week, the festival announced that American actor Matt Dillon would be a last-minute substitute on the jury for Romanian director Crisit Puiu.
   
No reason was given for Puiu's absence, but industry trade magazines noted he had given a speech earlier this month in which he said it was “inhumane” to watch movies with a mask on.
   
Those confirmed as attending include, among others, British actress Tilda Swinton, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, US director Oliver Stone and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen.
 
 
 
More women directors
 
The uncertain lineup of stars and dearth of top names leaves Australian actress Cate Blanchett, president of the jury, to take up the mantle of celebrity — and social activism — at Venice.
   
Blanchett was the leader of the #MeToo women's march up the red carpet steps at Cannes two years ago that sought to bring attention to the lack of parity and diversity in cinema.
   
The presence of Blanchett helps raise such awareness while the festival seeks to stanch criticism levelled in recent years over the glaring lack of women directors in festivals' top lineups.
 
The Oscar-winning headliner told Variety magazine on Thursday that this year's eight women directors in the main competition lineup of Venice is “a direct response to the positive advances that have been made this year”.
   
Others say it is too early to tell whether a page has turned.
   
“It's all about being consistent and diligent and believing that women make movies as well as men, and using that in the way you programme,” said Melissa Silverstein, founder and publisher of “Women and Hollywood”, which advocates for gender diversity and inclusion in film.
   
Last year's festival opened under controversy after the inclusion in the lineup of French-Polish director Roman Polanski, who fled the United States after his 1977 conviction of rape of a 13-year-old girl.
   
There were also only two female directors in the selection. In both 2018 and 2017, only one female director was represented.   
 
Blanchett said more was riding on the jury's decisions this year, given the limited opportunities for filmmakers to show their work publicly, due to the coronavirus closures.
   
“So, whatever the deliberations the jury will make will be more impactful. I don't take that responsibility or privilege lightly.”
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