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Short Take: Dogman

(Matteo Garrone, Italy/France, Magnolia Pictures, Opening April 12)

The film’s title is the name of the canine- grooming salon where protagonist Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is first seen sweet-talking a snarling pit bull into a hose-down, before the latter warms to the blow-dry finish. At home, Marcello shares pasta with his own dog, who helps himself to slurps as Marcello stares at the television.

The divorced father of one is no less of a pushover with purported “friend” Simone (Edoardo Pesce), feeding discounted cocaine on demand to the gorilla-ish ex-fighter who has made an enemy of every gangster and dealer in this small town on the Campania coast near Naples. Cajoled into being a heist driver, Marcello riskily returns to the crime scene after learning the thieves put a yappy dog in the freezer, and moves to extract himself from Simone’s orbit.

This small, sordid story (following the sumptuous fantasy of his 2015 departure Tale of Tales) could have slotted into Garrone’s chaptered 2008 breakthrough crime saga Gomorrah, and shares some of that film’s bleakly beautiful, puddle-strewn cinematography and authentic-feeling lowlife milieu. But the extended focus on Marcello lets Fonte, who won the Best Actor award at Cannes, mine his pip-squeak character (with his ingenuous grin and toddler hair part) for the gumption that allows him to finally stand up to his bully. Initially a whimpering Maltese, Marcello’s circumstances and choices create a biting bulldog, not necessarily for the better. Like Gomorrah, Dogman illustrates the ruinous effects organized crime can have on even its most puppyish bit players.

Justin Stewart is a writer whose work has appeared in Brooklyn magazine, Reverse Shot, and elsewhere.