Italy's new 'Buster Keaton' wins best actor at Cannes

Marcello Fonte accepts his award for Best Actor for the movie Dogman during the Closing Awards Ceremony of the 71st Cannes Film Festival, in Cannes, France, on May 19, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

CANNES (AFP) - A little-known Italian actor - who was working as a caretaker when he was discovered - won best actor at Cannes film festival on Saturday for his portrayal of a cocaine-dealing dog groomer who faces down a local heavy in an urban western.

Before being cast by Matteo Garrone of Gomorrah fame in Dogman, a brutal modern parable of the little guy who can take no more, Marcello Fonte from southern Italy had played only minor parts.

He was an extra in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York (2002) and played a small role in Alice Rohrwacher's 2011 Corpo Celeste, about a teenager trying to find her place in a Church-dominated Calabria.

Garrone met Fonte by accident at a social centre where he went to spot talent among former prisoners auditioning for parts in a play.

"Marcello was the caretaker, he was sleeping in the centre. He was listening in on the auditions when one day when one of the ex-prisoners fell ill and died and he took his place." From there it was a short hop to "Dogman" for the diminutive actor with the big smile and sunken cheeks, whose features reminded Garrone of a bygone Italy.

"He is the modern-day Buster Keaton, almost a silent movie actor", the director said.

For IndieWire reviewer David Ehrlich he played the part of the soft-spoken divorced pooch pamperer "to perfection".

Scorsese the Scotsman

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.

In a recent interview he related how you land a part "when you're nothing and have no connections".

"I would go see the wardrobe people and say 'the director sent me' and they would end up finding me a costume." So it was like that he found himself appearing alongside Leonardo di Caprio and Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York - despite never having heard of the director.

"He heard Scozzese and thought he must be a Scotsman", Garrone told AFP, laughing.

For Dogman he spent three months in a dog parlour to learn how to gussy up pit bulls and chihuahuas.

The film is loosely based on a true story in Rome in the late 1980s. Fonte's character, also called Marcello, is relentlessly bullied and betrayed by his friend Simone, a cocaine-snorting local heavy.

Marcello passes up multiple opportunities to bump off his tormentor and while Simone eventually gets his just desserts the dogman remains a sympathetic figure to the end.

"My character never becomes violent," Fonte told reporters in Cannes this week. "He is like a flower on a dungheap that remains white, or at least grey, which is never completely sullied."

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