Bleak and authentic: "Gomorrah" feels closer to the detached documentary observation of a Frederick Wiseman (or, at least, postwar Italian neo-realists) than it does to a highly worked Hollywood thrill machine. (Photo by Mario Spada courtesy IFC Films)

Gangster Life Verite in 'Gomorrah'

Dennis Harvey February 27, 2009

Since at least The Godfather in 1972, the mafia has been more mythic movie character than anything else in the U.S.—which is not to say it didn’t exist, but that its stature in the popular imagination (as recently as The Sopranos, which many consider TV’s greatest drama ever) has long been disproportionate to its shrinking real-world influence.

In its native Italy, however, the mafia remains a little too immediate to go down easily as escapist fiction. Actually the term "mafia" isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing there: The Cosa Nostra is primarily in Sicily. To the north in Naples and its surroundings there’s the Camorra, Italy’s oldest organized crime syndicate—one with an especially high homicide rate, since its estimated 150 clans are often at war with each other.

"War" is a term that comes up frequently, and not lightly, in Gomorrah. Matteo Garrone’s film is a drama inspired by journalist Roberto Saviano’s international bestseller. Although officially a novel, the latter clearly hit close enough to home: Since its publication Saviano has lived under constant police escort due to assassination threats.

The movie certainly feels closer to the detached documentary observation of a Frederick Wiseman (or, at least, postwar Italian neo-realists) than it does to a highly worked Hollywood thrill machine like, say, Scarface—though one morbid running joke here is how two hapless would-be gangsters keep quoting dialogue from the Pacino splatterfest, acting out a fantasy remote from the miserably real crime world they live in.

Like the strictest kind of verite doc, Gomorrah simply presents activity, without neatly "introducing" characters, spelling out their circumstances or motivations. It takes some time to sort out the major figures. We glean that in the "war" between different factions, you can only be on one side or another—but Garrone and his scenarists (including Saviano) don’t make it easy to know who’s on what side, perhaps to underline the Camorra as an internecine death trap without any truly safe choices. (For what it’s worth, a fellow writer told me the various narrative lines were much easier to follow on his second viewing.)

There are no flamboyant set pieces here a la Coppola, DePalma or City of God, no dazzling auteurist aesthetics. Instead, there’s bleak authenticity with a rumbling undercurrent of dread—the constant hand-held closeups make you think someone might get a bullet in the head at any moment. This is an Italy of crumbling industrial structures, slum housing and ugly landscapes you won’t find in any travel guide. When violence comes, it’s quick, dirty and businesslike, without picturesque fountains of blood or slow-mo bullet ballets. (As if to lure viewers expecting such stuff in, the film starts with its one flashy bit, a tanning-bed massacre.)

Gradually emerging from this impersonal web of extortions, drug deals and hits are five principal storylines. Toto (Nicolo Manta) is a grocery delivery boy who’s 13 and looks even younger. Nonetheless, he’s eager to join his neighborhood’s gang and start delivering other things for considerably more reward. Also in the delivery business (of Camorra funds to the families of imprisoned members) is weary Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato). He ought to be facing a comfortable retirement, but instead spends each day at greater risk of being killed on his violence-riddled rounds.

Another unhappy veteran cog in the machine is Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a master tailor whose sewshop makes haute couture gowns. Nickle-and-dimed by his boss, he accepts a secret offer to teach hand-crafting lessons at a Chinese-run garment factory. But if found out, this "betrayal" could cost him dearly.

At the bottom of the food chain are Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (Marco Macor), two teens young, dumb and full of you-know-what enough to imagine they can get away with an independent local crime spree—using weapons stolen from the professional criminals—and somehow avoid dire consequences. At the top is Franco (Toni Servillo), an elegant, seemingly legit businessman who orchestrates disposal of toxic chemicals. Hired as his new assistant, university grad Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is thrilled by this career opportunity—then appalled as he discovers the very "dirty" truths behind Franco’s deals. (The Camorra has been implicated in cost-cutting landfill practices that have created major recent pollution issues.)

From slum children transporting that hazardous waste, all the way to Scarlett Johanssen—glimpsed on TV wearing one of Pasquale’s dresses at a gala—Gomorrah makes the point that the Camorra’s reach stretches almost everywhere. A closing succession of explanatory titles informs that among the many legitimate enterprises it launders ill-gotten wealth into, the Camorra has been identified as an investor in…the World Trade Center’s rebuilding!

Fascinating if not exactly fun, Gomorrah shows a societal cancer so advanced it appears the patient might not survive surgery. Claimed by some to have been around as far back as the 1500s, the Camorra may yet outlive us all.