25 February 2009


Directed by Matteo Garrone
Written by Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, Roberto Saviano
Full credits from IMDb

Gomorra, a sprawling, footslogging, anti-romantic mob movie, operates under the influence of two contrasting impulses: it’s a brutally realistic glimpse of gangster violence set against a hellscape so vividly decayed that it couldn’t possibly be real. Director Garrone alienates us from the first reel, which he sets amid walk-in tanning booths. (Such things exist? Solamente in Italia!) Large white lamps bathe the screen in navytones as rich as Blue Man Group bodypaint; this isn’t a mob movie set Scorsesely in the next neighborhood over, but on what appears to be a strange exotic planet, something not out of 1974 but 2001.

This is, however, actually Naples circa 2008, and to resituate the audience in something familiar, anonymous assassins soon gun down the dayspa-ists. See? Big Italy is just like Little Italy. Structured as interwoven vignettes of crime and violence in gang-war-torn Scampia, the northernmost district of Napoli, Gomorra concerns a handful of characters loosely or directly related to the Camorra (see the title’s pun?), Campania’s parallel to the Sicilian Mafia: a master tailor, an old man doling out cash-payments, a drug-runner on the cusp of puberty, two Scarface-obsessed teenage knucklenecks (take that, Hollywood!), and a crooked businessman, dumping toxic waste in an empty quarry. (That last one serves as a not-so-subtle metaphor; “poison sludge” undergirds the town.)

What little power Gomorra possesses stems not from its unremarkable but authentic characters—and certainly not in its simplistic narrative thrust—but rather from its eye for detail, most of all in its evocative sense of place. Garrone narrows his focus to the Scampiano day-to-day, which includes not only plumbing problems and grocery deliveries but also armed robbery, drug deals, and police raids. Gomorra’s strength, though, is less in what happens than where it happens: the post-apocalyptic backdrop, packed with housing complexes that resemble Mayan ruins, teems with two-bit hoods up to no good on every curb and in every backalley, apartment staircase, dank concrete shell and abandoned gas station. (A rite of passage includes donning a bulletproof vest and taking a bullet to the chest.) Garrone’s camera, under Marco Onorato’s direction, twists around corners, craning like the neck of a curious child, soaking up whatever is happening in the vicinity of the characters—mostly cash counting and generally shady idling.

There’s a real sense of life outside the frame, but unfortunately little sense of life, er, under it. Despite its slug’s eye view of crime and its effects, Gomorra lacks both drive—at 135 minutes, its structure of stitched-together, unrelated short stories quickly grows tiresome—and substance. Based on a best-selling book, an exposé of the Camorra by a journalist now living with 24-hour bodyguards, the movie needs to do something more than show audiences something they literally haven’t seen before; it has little reason to drag us to Scampia except to point and cry, “see how awful things are?” Preachy factoids, which precede the end credits, explicitly tell viewers how terrible things are, in case we missed it. (We are meant to feel partially culpable, too, I think, as when the tailor watches Scarlett Johansson on television walk down a red carpet in a dress on which he and his staff have spent several weeks’ worth of overtime.) That Garrone has stripped Gomorra of Hollywood’s romantic view of crime and criminals is more a curio than a virtue; the movie’s lessons are as pat as crime doesn’t pay, that bad decisions come back around as violence, and that in parts of Italy, violence is so pervasive that no one—not even children or the elderly!—is free from its reach. The film succeeds photographically, as neo-realism, but with its focus spread across so many characters and shallow stories, it offers little personal or emotional insight, let alone context, into its visual revelations. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:


Anonymous said...

nice review, but read the book and watch the movie again. There you'll find the depth and the explanations you're looking for.

H. Stewart said...

I think that's the problem. Gomorra (the movie) should be able to stand on its own without an ancillary book.

Thanks for writing.