There are no colorful characters in Gomorrah (2008), Matteo Garrone’s corrosive and ferociously unsentimental fictional look at Italian organized crime; no white-haired mamas lovingly stirring the spaghetti sauce; no opera arias swelling on the soundtrack; no homilies about family, honor or tradition; no dark jokes; no catchy pop songs; no film allusions; no winking fun; no thrilling violence. Instead, there is waste, grotesque human waste, some of which ends up illegally buried in the same ground where trees now bear bad fruit, some of which, like the teenager scooped up by a bulldozer on a desolate beach, is cast away like trash.
A snapshot of hell, the film takes its biblically inflected punning title from the Camorra, or Neapolitan Mafia, the largest of Italy’s crime gangs, with 100 barely organized, incessantly warring clans and some 7,000 members. Based in and around Naples, the Camorra (it means gang) smuggles cigarettes, drugs, guns and people, polluting the province with fear and worse. Unlike the better-known Sicilian Mafia, which took root in America in the late 19th century and in Hollywood thereafter, the Camorra has never had a significant presence in this country, pop cultural or otherwise. Until now, its reign of terror has been largely in reality and not on the screen, which explains why the world in this film can feel so alien: the movies haven’t yet imagined it.
The sense that you are visiting an alien world is critical to the film’s forceful grip, which immediately takes hold of you in the opening with images of some men bathed in dark blue light standing in what turn out to be sunbathing booths. With their goggles, shimmering bare flesh and strange metal pods, the men initially look like space travelers, an idea that vanishes when sudden gunfire adds blasts of orange and spurts of red to the palette. You never learn who the men are or why they died: death makes these details irrelevant. What matters is that this is a world in which people kill other human beings as casually as you take out the garbage because, for them, other human beings are fundamentally disposable.
Among the most imperiled are two teenage dimwits (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) who run amok while shouting lines from Brian De Palma’s Scarface (always a bad idea) and a delicate-faced 13-year-old (Salvatore Abruzzese) who joins the Camorra without realizing the price it will exact. Interwoven with these separate story threads are three others: that of a couture tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) whose factory is controlled by the Camorra; a money runner (Gianfelice Imparato) who delivers weekly payments to mob families; and an urbane businessman (Toni Servillo) and his aide (Carmine Paternoster), who, by arranging for companies discreetly to (“‘clean,’ like they say in the United State”) dump their toxic waste in fields and quarries throughout the region, are literally poisoning its people.
Death has seeped into the earth here, a truism that informs every life in the film, which was adapted from the 2006 best-selling exposé of the same title by the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano. (He shares screenwriting credit with Mr. Garrone and four others.) In his book, Mr. Saviano, who grew up right outside of Naples, takes a passionately personal approach to his material, inserting himself into the narrative and deploying vivid, self-conscious language. (Shipping containers are not just emptied, they’re disemboweled.) Though you feel his presence engraved in every image, Mr. Garrone’s handling of the same material is cooler, emotionally detached, as if he were conducting an ethnographic study, a tactic that keeps the story from boiling over into melodrama.
This reserve is as much a matter of ethics as aesthetics. Shot in widescreen, the film has a tableaulike monumentality, whether the camera is prowling through the corridors of the decrepit apartment blocks where much of the story unfolds or pulling back for a bird’s-eye view. But Mr. Garrone isn’t playing the showman here. That’s partly because this world doesn’t need any embellishment: it’s freaky and eye-catching enough. Yet there’s another dimension to his visual reserve, a sense of modesty that feels like a moral imperative. There are no beautiful deaths in Gomorrah, no gorgeous geysers of blood. You don’t admire Mr. Garrone’s virtuosity when someone dies. Here, murder is grimly on point: “We have to score, kill, and we need money.”
I don’t want to overplay the film’s violence — it has a lower body count than the average Hollywood action flick — or underplay Mr. Garrone’s artistry. But part of what’s bracing about Gomorrah, and makes it feel different from so many American crime movies, is both its deadly serious take on violence and its global understanding of how far and wide the mob’s tentacles reach, from high fashion to the very dirt. There’s a heaviness to the bloodletting here, which has pressed down on this world and emptied its faces, halls and apartments of life. This is a world in which no one laughs, populated by men who are so busy killing one another that they don’t realize they’re as good as dead already.
Though Mr. Garrone doesn’t point a finger at the audience, he doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Toward the end of the film, the tailor accidentally catches sight of Scarlett Johansson on television as she smilingly promenades on a red carpet in one of the gowns he helped to make. As the announcers chatter about the gown (“an apparent simplicity, but in reality, very elaborate”), and the paparazzi scream for the star, the tailor smiles wistfully at his creation, which he and a roomful of women painstakingly hand-sewed in a gloomy factory for too many hours and too little money. It’s a cream-colored dress with a nice drape and satiny sheen, and while you can’t see the blood that went into every stitch, it’s there.
Review courtesy of The New York Times