Monday, March 9, 2009


By Elise Nakhnikian

Based on a novel about the camorra, a criminal underground that apparently has a pretty effective stranglehold on Naples, Gomorrah is a whole new kind of mafia movie. Beautifully shot but bleak, this naturalistic tale of relentless brutality makes the Godfather series look like a romantic fantasy. Compared to the goombahs of Gomorrah, even Tony Soprano looks tony.

Roberto Saviano, who cowrote the screenplay, must have struck dangerously close to the truth in his 2006 novel: He’s been under constant police protection since the book was published. Director Matteo Garrone, who is a painter as well as a filmmaker, artfully translates the novel’s grim intensity to the screen. He creates a world as visceral as a kick in the gut and as claustrophobic as the tanning booths that cocoon a group of paunchy men in the opening scene, bathing them in an eerie blue light.

We never do learn who those men are or why they get slaughtered like so many penned cattle, but as Gomorrah layers scene upon scene, their gory ending becomes part of the fabric of this bloody society.

Gomorrah’s hand-held camera joins people in mid-activity, simply following one individual or group for a while before switching to another. Before the main characters emerge from the crowd, you get a sense of their world and the rules they live by.

And what a world it is. Men kill each other with dull, emotionless efficiency while boys watch and girls and women hole up in their apartments, locking their doors in midday. Everyone – even housewives and children – must choose a side in this perpetual war. Wads of money are constantly being counted and passed off – yet nobody ever seems to enjoy his earnings. There’s no release to be found, even in nature, from the limited horizons of this gang-ruled gulag. And while the kids are beautiful and full of life, the grown-ups generally look either drawn and defeated or coarse and cruel.

Much of the action takes place in one teeming apartment complex, a multi-layered maze of dwellings and walkways that functions almost as a city within the city. Everyone seems to know everyone else’s business, and the most private things get played out in public – sometimes all at once. In one particularly memorable scene, a wedding party parades through one passageway while gangsters wage a gunfight from the next tier up.

Saviano grew up in Naples, which may explain why so much of the focus is on boys and young men. We spend enough time with Marco (Marco Macor) and his skinny friend Ciro (Ciro Petrone), wannabe gangsters foolish enough to think they can operate independently, to grow fond of the half-feral knuckleheads. Their eventual destruction by the gang feels as inevitable, and weighs as heavily, as any classic tragic ending. So does the catch-22 that traps Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), an even younger boy who gets adopted by one of the gangs after returning a pistol they lost in a gunfight.

The boys – like many of the adults in the film – are played by nonprofessional actors from the area. The filmmakers direct and shoot them masterfully, making it easy to forget that they’re acting. When a few boys serve as crash test dummies for bulletproof vests, testing them by getting shot at point-blank, Garrone shows just enough of the fear on their faces and the vulnerability of their small bodies disappearing into the dark of the cave where the gangsters are waiting for them. You ache for these little guys, who believe what they’re told about this dark passageway being the route to manhood.

The stories of a couple of grown men expand the picture, showing how the camorra’s tentacles reach into the bowels of the global economy.

Pasquale, a gifted tailor who has been virtually enslaved since boyhood by his connected boss, sneaks out at night to coach the workers at a rival sweatshop. His story is a grim illustration of how the camorra deals with competition. We also get a sense of how far their business dealings extend, as we watch Scarlett Johansson spin on a red carpet in a dress made by Pasquale.

We also get a window into another camorra-controlled business – and the damage they’re doing to the land around Naples and the people who live there – when a young man named Roberto (Carmine Pasternoster) is apprenticed to a slick operator who manages the dumping of toxic waste in the area. “We solve problems created by others,” Roberto’s boss says of their waste-dumping scam.

That may be a rationalization, but it contains an uncomfortable dose of the truth.

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