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

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.
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.

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