In Theaters

Few among us would deny the attraction we feel for a sense of personal power. It enables us to direct our destiny and shape the existence we want for ourselves. But it also comes with a temptation, one that can easily get out of hand if left unchecked. And it carries consequences, especially if we misuse it in our dealings with others or our community. It’s an issue that the residents of a neighborhood past its prime wrestle with every day in the tense new dramatic release, “Dogman” (web site, trailer).

Life in a rundown Italian seaside community has its residents on the edge, thanks to the relentless crimes, bullying and intimidation of Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce), a former boxer with anger management issues and a serious cocaine habit. He does as he pleases, trashing property, burglarizing homes and businesses, and beating up the vulnerable, including his own mother (Nunzia Schiano), whenever he feels like it. The locals fear him, but they also believe that something has to be done about him, given that authorities do nothing to stop him. It’s like living on the American frontier in the 19th Century, a story that brings new meaning to the term “spaghetti Western.”

It doesn’t help matters that Simoncino has enablers who let him get away with what he wants. Whether they act out of self-preservation or the promise of rewards for their assistance, his shady colleagues quietly help him out when the need calls, often despite publicly condemning his actions. That’s most true of a kindly but weak-willed dog groomer, Marcello (Marcello Fonte), whose conciliatory gestures are mostly intended to keep Simoncino from unduly picking on him. Sometimes Simoncino throws a bone to his coerced cohort, but it’s often paltry and usually less than promised.

Marcello (Marcello Fonte), a sensitive but weak-willed dog groomer in a rundown Italian seaside community, does his best to carve out a living while fending off the neighborhood bully in the tense new dramatic release, “Dogman.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Marcello’s willingness to help Simoncino seems puzzlingly out of character. Given how he dotes on his canine clients and lovingly cares for his young daughter, Alida (Alida Baldari Calabria), his readiness to go along with the bully’s schemes come across as wholly anomalous. At times Marcello’s actions appear aimed at quelling the tension. Sometimes they’re efforts to save his own neck. And occasionally he sees opportunities to potentially get something out of these schemes. But, most of the time, his involvement is inexplicable. One can’t help but wonder what he’s thinking.

As time passes, Simoncino’s offenses grow increasingly unpredictable and ever more despicable. Meanwhile, Marcello’s responses become progressively more desperate and humiliating. He even takes the rap for crimes he didn’t commit. And, as all of this plays out, the neighbors are losing their patience with the entire situation. But what can be done? Marcello’s faced with quite the dilemma, but he knows a resolution is desperately needed – and soon.

As much as Simoncino looks to profit materially from his antics, he’s obviously most concerned with the acquisition of power and control over his neighbors and community. He actively asserts himself to amass these commodities, while those around him (particularly Marcello) routinely and willingly hand them over. Understanding that dynamic is thus crucial to appreciate why each of these characters experiences life as they do.

Simoncino succeeds in his efforts because he believes he can get away with them. He envisions what he wants and then makes sure he acquires or develops the means to get it. The neighborhood bully understands the power of his beliefs, as well as the power they provide him.

Simoncino (Edoardo Pesce, left), the neighborhood bully in a rundown Italian seaside community, intimidates Marcello (Marcello Fonte, right), a sensitive but weak-willed dog groomer, to get his way in director Matteo Garrone’s latest offering, “Dogman.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

By contrast, Marcello and the others in his neighborhood cower in fear, believing there’s nothing that can be done about the local nemesis. In embracing that belief, they give their power away, leaving them with nothing to defend themselves against someone who wields it so effectively. Thus it should come as no surprise why they’re subjected to such intolerable conditions.

With such circumstances in place, one might think that all is lost, that remediation is impossible. But change is indeed possible. However, it requires an alteration in outlook. Nevertheless, as long as the prevailing thinking is allowed to hold sway, nothing will change. Of course, it takes more than just new beliefs; they must be followed up with action. If area residents really want something different for themselves, they must devise plans that get results and go beyond mere wishful thinking.

This is where power again comes into play. Marcello and his neighbors must insist on taking it back and putting it to use to attain what they want. The question in this, of course, is, do they possess the personal fortitude to see this through? That means ditching any fears that they cling to, embracing the courage necessary to implement plans for change (and, in this case, change that’s inherently radical, far different from the circumstances to which they’ve grown accustomed).

Marcello Fonte gives an award-winning performance as a sensitive but weak-willed dog groomer in a rundown Italian seaside community in the tense new dramatic release, “Dogman.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

For the results to be truly meaningful, they must also consider how personal integrity factors into the mix, for it will have tremendous impact on the nature and quality of the results. In Marcello’s case, for example, he’s a sensitive, thoughtful, caring individual, so, if he’s to come up with a plan that sincerely satisfies him, he needs to figure out how he can achieve results without violating his own code of personal conduct. However, that may prove to be a tall order under the circumstances.

Can Marcello indeed make that happen? That remains to be seen. It’s something that will require quite a feat of creativity, one that employs options that may not have been previously contemplated, surpassing the limitations of easy answers that could be construed as personal compromises. Should he resort to convenient fallbacks, he could well end up disappointed with the outcome, one that’s not in line with his standards, disappointingly demonstrating that he’s no better than the foe he’s attempting to vanquish. It’s something we must all heed when faced with situations like this, for the results might easily expose who the real “dogman” is in these circumstances.

I must confess to having a love-hate relationship with this offering. While the film presents an interesting premise that’s well constructed during the first two acts, it seems to paint itself into a corner as it heads toward the conclusion, not quite sure how to wrap up the story. To avoid losing the essence of its central message, the picture regrettably resorts to predictable, conventional means to accomplish this goal, creating something of a letdown in light of the originality depicted at the outset. Sensitive viewers should also be aware that the film features some violent and disturbing sequences. They never get gratuitously out of hand and are generally presented in context, but they’re far from tame, and those who are easily upset by such images should bear this in mind. “Dogman” has been featured at many film festivals and is currently playing in limited release in theaters specializing in independent and foreign film.

Despite its shortcomings, “Dogman” has received its share of accolades. At the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, director Matteo Garrone’s latest earned Fonte the best actor award for his portrayal of the timid dog groomer, a role in which he comes across like an edgy version of a young Jerry Lewis. In addition, the film captured the Festival’s Palm Dog Award in recognition of its outstanding canine cast, as well as a nomination for the Palme d’Or, the event’s highest honor. What’s more, at the BAFTA Awards, the picture picked up a nomination for best foreign language film.

An old adage maintains that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Based on the story presented here, it’s easy to see how that can happen, too. But personal power need not become a runaway carriage; it can be tempered and focused into productive pursuits, provided that we make the effort to funnel our beliefs in that direction. And, if we should get off on the wrong path, it’s something we earnestly should consider doing before our lives go to the dogs.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

For Those Without a Voice

For those without a voice, it’s often difficult to be heard. In those cases, it generally takes someone with the courage and resilience to step up and make the case for them, not the easiest of undertakings. But, when an advocate with the right qualities emerges, incredible results are possible. So it is with an unlikely envoy for a little-known aggrieved people as seen in the stirring documentary, “On Her Shoulders,” available on DVD, Blu-ray Disc and video on demand (web site, trailer).

Speaking for refugees whose story has largely gone ignored is difficult enough, but, when the spokesperson is one of those refugees herself, the burden can be a lot to carry. So it has been for Nadia Murad, a passionate advocate for the Yazidi people of northern Iraq, a religious and ethnic minority whose homeland was overrun by attacking ISIS forces in 2014. Through an orchestrated campaign of carnage that included murder, rape and sexual enslavement, the insurgents quickly overran their victims, including a 19-year-old Nadia, who was held captive for three months before escaping. Her ordeal became her cause, which is now told in director Alexandria Bombach’s documentary.

Former ISIS captive Nadia Murad details her painful experiences and those of her fellow Yazidis in the moving documentary, “On Her Shoulders,” available on DVD, Blu-ray Disc and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

The film follows Murad as she seeks to make the story of her people known to a world that has heard precious little about them and their plight through mainstream media channels and official sources. Through visits to Canada, Germany and Greece, the film documents Nadia’s efforts to inform the public through interviews, personal appearances, and meetings with both refugees and political figures. In addition to increasing awareness about this humanitarian crisis and seeking the attention and support of the United Nations, Nadia’s work also includes tireless efforts to bring war crimes charges against the culprits who plundered her community, an initiative backed by human rights attorney Amal Clooney.

But “On Her Shoulders” is more than just a record of Nadia’s official activities. It also depicts the phenomenal pressure that has been unexpectedly thrust onto a young woman who wanted nothing more than to live a simple life in her homeland. This becomes apparent through her nonstop schedule of events to spread the word and to comfort those who were fortunate enough to flee the tyranny of their attackers. It’s also painfully obvious through the media interviews and hearing testimony that she gives in which she recounts in painful detail – over and over again – the ordeals that she and her people suffered at the hands of her enemies. The film thus reveals an individual of remarkable personal strength and fortitude, as well as a committed and eloquent spokesperson for an oppressed community.

Needless to say, all of this has carried a tremendous cost, both at the time of Nadia’s capture and torture, as well as in her constant reliving of the ordeal in making the case for her people. However, given what’s at stake, she refuses to capitulate to these circumstances, continually striving to promote awareness of the genocide and atrocities inflicted on the Yazidis. This is perhaps best reflected during her address before the U.N. General Assembly in 2016, when she stated, “This world was not only created for you and your families. We also want life, and it’s our right to live it. If beheading, taking women as sex slaves, raping children and the displacement of millions will not move you – when will you move?”

With Yazidi activist Murad Ismael (second from right), former ISIS captive Nadia Murad (left) addresses a crowd in Germany in director Alexandria Bombach’s affecting documentary, “On Her Shoulders.” Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Thanks to her efforts, word of the plight of the Yazidis has finally begun to gain recognition. This remarkable young woman should be commended for everything she has accomplished thus far. Let us hope that we don’t let her down now that she’s made her case and gotten our attention.

This incredibly moving documentary can be a difficult film to watch at times, but its impact is undeniable. One can’t help but feel for the fate of the Yazidis, as well as Nadia’s personal pain, accomplishments attained through Bombach’s masterful direction. The filmmaker genuinely earns our heartfelt emotions without becoming manipulative, maudlin or gratuitously graphic. “On Her Shoulders” is authentically affecting in a way that many other films telling similar stories fail to achieve.

Speaking to Yazidi refugees in Greece, Nadia Murad (second from right), spokesperson for her displaced people, learns of the experiences of her peers in the stirring documentary “On Her Shoulders,” available on DVD, Blu-ray Disc and video on demand. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

For its efforts, the film received a number of honors and awards, most notably the National Board of Review’s prestigious Freedom of Expression Award. In addition, the picture earned two Independent Spirit Award nominations, including nods for best documentary and the competition’s Truer Than Fiction Award. It also picked up two Sundance Film Festival documentary nominations for best director and the Grand Jury Prize.

It’s truly unfortunate in this day and age that we still need advocates like Nadia Murad. But, as long as we as a species continue to engage in the kinds of atrocities like those committed against the Yazidis, the stories of these horrendous crimes must be told. Thankfully, we’re fortunate to have courageous souls who are unafraid to speak up and make the truth known in hopes that we can keep such horrific episodes from happening again.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Symbolically Speaking

What can symbolism in movies tell us about contemporary society? A lot. Find out more by listening to the latest edition of The CoffeeCast with host Tom Cheevers in which we discuss how movies like “Us” (2019), “Captain Marvel” (2019), “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017), “The Shape of Water” (2017), “Await Further Instructions” (2018), “Styx” (2018) and “Loveless” (2017) symbolically reflect the issues of the day, available by clicking here. Tune in for some intriguing, thought-provoking movie chat.

Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.