Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (2008) has been available on VOD through IFC, but I had a chance to catch the film on the big screen at the Orpheum Theatre last weekend. Even if you’re not a fan of gangster films, you owe it to yourself to see this revisionist epic. Set largely in and around a suburban Naples housing project that suggests a run-down Aztec-inspired LeFrak City, Gomorrah involves five different plot threads, but, unlike most ensemble films or network narratives, they never intersect. The film’s structure mirrors that of the Camorra, a crime organization bigger than the Mafia, whose tentacles extend into almost every level of Italian society and the global economy – toxic waste disposal, sex clubs and prostitution, arms trafficking, loan sharking, and high fashion. The Camorra so permeates the fabric of everyday life in Naples that no one seems immune to the violence, which has resulted in four thousand deaths in Italy over the past thirty years.
The film opens with a dark blue-filtered shot inside a tanning booth. As the image gradually brightens, it feels as if we’ve entered a science fiction film, as the body of a gangster is illuminated by ultraviolet radiation. We glimpse four gangsters as they joke, tan artificially, and one gets a manicure, only to get blown away in quick, methodical fashion by their rivals. The prologue serves as a apt metaphor for what follows – in ways that will only become obvious to us later on. Whereas classic gangster films usually emphasize honor and loyalty to family, clan, and country, the world mapped by Gomorrah is one marked by betrayal. All traditional values have been leveled – it’s only money that motivates anyone’s actions. Even those on the dole – the families of gangsters who receive regular payments – complain about the cheapness of the crime boss.
We follow five major characters. Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a thirteen-year-old boy who delivers groceries for his single mom in the sprawling housing complex. He’s a good kid at heart, but survival in such an environment demands that one must eventually choose sides between warring clan factions. There’s an intense scene where the mobsters test Toto’s courage and manhood by shooting him at close range while he wears a large chest protector. Toto survives, but later stares in the mirror and fingers the purple bruise left by the bullet.
Other major characters include Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor making high-fashion knockoffs in an mob-financed Italian sweatshop. He accepts a bribe from Chinese competitors and secretly switches sides. The Camorra accountant Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) goes from family to family with subsidies, but he has no loyalty either – he’s merely following the list he’s been given and doing what he’s told. When the going gets rough, he seeks an accommodation with the opposition. There’s also Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), who starts working for a waste management firm. He watches as his boss Franco (Toni Servillo), who wears suits and looks very much like a legitimate businessman, hires young kids to drive toxic material and illegally dumps it on nearby land with disastrous consequences. In a scene near the end, we see the effects on a man dying of cancer (which we learn in the end credits has increased in the area by twenty percent).
As the Roberto and Franco drive back, Roberto becomes disgusted and indicates he’s not cut out for the business. The two get into a heated exchange on the side of the road:
FRANCO: You think this job sucks? You know guys like me put this shit country in Europe? Know how many workers I’ve helped by saving their companies money?
Franco chases after Roberto and points to the green farm land.
FRANCO (Cont.) Stop and look. What do you see? Debts. All these people have been saved only thanks to us.
ROBERTO: I saw how you helped them live. You save a worker in Mestre and kill a family in Mondragone.
FRANCO: That’s how it works, but I didn’t decide it. We solve problems created by others. I didn’t create chromium and asbestos, I didn’t dig up the mountain. That’s how it works.
ROBERTO: That’s how it works? I don’t work that way. I’m not like you.
FRANCO: What are you like?
ROBERTO: I’m different.
Roberto walks away from the older man.
FRANCO: Go make pizzas!
Franco’s rationalization for his criminal behavior suggests how ingrained such a cynical mentality has become, which is precisely what feeds and sustains the operations of the Camorra.
The two most colorful characters in Gommorah are two teenage knuckleheads – Ciro (Ciro Petrone), aka “Sweet Pea,” a gangly kid with a crew cut and prominent nose, and his pal Marco (Marco Macor), whose voice sounds as if his larynx is caught in a vice grip. To the annoyance of the local area crime boss, the two fantasize they’re characters right out of Brian De Palma’s Scarface. These hopeless romantics naively believe they can outsmart the real gangsters. Marco is bit crazy, while Sweet Pea might easily be nicknamed “Pea Brain.” The two ridicule the local crime boss, rob African coke dealers and later a pool hall, and steal a cache of arms from the mobsters. At one point, as the two walk along the beach in their skivvies and sneakers, they shoot high-powered weapons and inadvertently blow up a boat on the opposite shore. Without the comedic charm and goofy shenanigans of Marco and Sweet Pea – Garrone compares them to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza – the film would feel much more like the grim exposé it actually is.
Garrone uses a nervous hand-held steadicam to probe the characters and events in the story. The brutalist architecture of the housing complex defines its inhabitants, suggesting at various times the inside of a prison. His camera moves fluidly around characters and back and forth between them as they speak, giving the film a documentary-like quality. Yet certain scenes such as the tanning booth and sex club are highly stylized through the use of colored gels. And when Pasquale pays a visit to the Chinese competitor, the inside of the factory building is bathed in a orange light that suggests he’s entering hell – a hell within hell. There’s one shot, however, when the mob shoots up the car carrying Pasquale, and it careens into a garden full of reproductions of Roman statues that would make Manny Farber turn over in his grave. For me, it’s the only false stylistic note in an otherwise compelling story of how crime has infiltrated virtually every aspect of the lives of these characters.
It’s no wonder that Roberto Saviano, the author of the 2006 book on which Garrone’s film is based, has been under continual police protection. Garrone, however, has attempted to distance himself from Saviano, who apparently divulged Camorra secrets while on publicity tours. Garrone told an interviewer from LA Weekly: “It’s terrible what’s happened to him, but he made a pact with the Devil, to have a best-seller.” Garrone’s Gomorrah has grossed nearly $34 million at the box office worldwide, but only $1.5 million in the U.S. thus far. It hasn’t helped that the film was somehow passed over for an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Picture. Anyone who sees Gomorrah – and it’s not been exactly been easy in this country – will surely wonder why.
Note to local readers: I’m happy to report that Gomorrah is being held over for a second week at the Orpheum.