REVIEW: “Gomorrah” (****)

Posted by · 6:07 am · October 2nd, 2008

IFC Films' GomorrahThe title “Gomorrah” is at once metaphorically apt and tonally misleading. In referencing the Biblical city destroyed by God for its sinfulness, Roberto Saviano’s best-selling non-fiction posited its own setting, Naples, as some kind of present-day equivalent.

A city ruled and consequently ravaged by the Camorra, the notoriously brutal crime syndicate that has reportedly been responsible for over 4,000 deaths since the 1970s, it is also suffering for its sins — though in this case, the destruction comes entirely from within.

The weightiness of the Biblical allusion, however, implies a fire-and-brimstone subjectivity that is refreshingly absent in Matteo Garrone’s thrilling remixing (adaptation is too cautious a word) of Saviano’s book. Marked alternately — and, in its best moments, simultaneously — by jolting violence, poetic kitchen-sink realism and blacker-than-black humor, this is first and foremost a work of social observation.

As he repeatedly emphasized in his recent Q&A at London’s ICA, Garrone is more concerned with truth than tract.  Though the film lays the grim consequences of organized crime bare for all to see, his primary interest is in how such horrors complicate the everyday lives of those who live within and without the Camorra’s snare.

The film’s social consciousness and dense, initially disorienting multi-narrative structure has earned comparisons with such recent crime sagas as “City of God” and “Traffic,” though it’s not as cinematically self-aware as the former, nor as narratively diagrammatic as the latter. (Neither term is meant pejoratively.)

Garrone instead cites neo-realist doyen Roberto Rossellini as a key influence, and this provides a far clearer reference point: Garrone may have far busier story material here than exists in “Paisan” and “Open City” combined, but he shares Rossellini’s most academic qualities as a filmmaker, patiently following his characters through everyday domestic exchanges, and noting the physical and social textures of his story world with an anthropologist’s eye. In doing so, he further mines territory initially opened by such works as “The Sopranos” to offer up the least glamorous Mafia film ever made.

The bravura opening scene wittily makes such intentions clear: as a horde of Camorra members are efficiently executed by a rival faction in a grotesque shootout, the shock of the carnage is tempered by the irony that it all takes place among the tanning beds and massage tables of a seedy male beauty spa.

GomorrahThis disjuncture between the mythology of  Mafia masculinity and its mundane reality is a running motif throughout the film; at one point, two characters enact a daydream of themselves as Tony Montana in Brian De Palma’s “Scarface,” temporarily oblivious to the crumbling concrete tower blocks that surround them.

Working with a bevy of co-writers (including Saviano himself), Garrone has filleted five self-contained stories from Saviano’s book. While never specifically intersecting (there’s little structural symmetry of the Paul Haggis school to be found here), they come to illuminate each other in more oblique ways, demonstrating both the Camorra’s splintered identity and its all-encompassing influence.

Arguably the most vivid strand features the youngest protagonist, 13-year-old Toto, played by engagingly unaffected newcomer Salvatore Abruzzese. Keen to get on the first rung of the crime ladder, with the status and material benefits that it brings, he enthusiastically accepts a dogsbody gig as a drug runner, but is morally unprepared for the speed and intensity with which his Camorra involvement develops.

Another strand involves two hopelessly naïve older teenagers, Marco and Ciro, who, hyped up on Hollywood Mafia-movie fantasies, decide to form their own crime syndicate of two — a frightening descent into make-believe that proves only a temporary release from the influence of the Camorra.

It is the progressively undisciplined game-playing these two practice that results in the film’s most arresting (and well-publicized) scene: stripped down to their underwear and armed with machine guns, they hysterically fire round after round into an empty lake, gunfire without consequence having become the nearest thing to escapism in a society hinged on the act of killing.

GomorrahThe remaining stories progress further up the syndicate’s food chain. Middle-aged tailor Pasquale makes a living crafting designer knockoffs for Camorra-owned businesses, but falls foul of his bosses when he accepts more lucrative employment from a Chinese outfit. Franco (the excellent Toni Servillo, also to be seen in “Il Divo”) is an oily, prosperous waste-management entrepreneur, while his young university-graduate assistant teeters nervously on the edge of Camorra involvement.

Finally, the most melancholy thread involves Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato, in the film’s standout performance), an older, mild-mannered money-runner left increasingly bewildered as the aggressive infighting of younger Camorra factions causes him to question his own values.

If it takes some time to untangle the narratives and delineate the character dynamics, that actually works in the film’s favor — the overriding impression is of an organization so conflicted and decentralized it has bled into the city’s entire population, whether people are consciously involved or not. In a less focused filmmaker’s hands, it could all become rather samey and impenetrable, but Garrone plays it like a symphony, letting each strand patiently develop at its own pace and rhythm.

Rather than contriving to escalate and converge events into a unified climax, he lets the stories play out successively, each one posing questions that are further complicated by the next, until, in the closing notes, the fate of two characters winds up speaking for the ensemble.

“Gomorrah” is that rare film one looks forward to seeing again before the first viewing is even up; no doubt further viewings will reveal yet more subtleties of the impossibly intricate social tapestry Garrone has woven here. Richly drawn and uniformly well-portrayed (by a hand-picked mixture of thespians and amateurs from the streets of Naples) as its inhabitants are, it is the story world, the ‘sin city’ of the title — in all its dust-coloured, blood-spattered anti-splendor, pounding to the bleak beats of Eurodance music — that might be “Gomorrah”’s most indelible character.

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6 responses so far

  • 1 10-10-2008 at 4:08 pm

    AdamL said...

    I felt the lack of focus hurt the film – clearly an unfocused, sprawling canvas was the intent, but there is something to be said for a cleaner narrative. Don’t think it matches the quality of the two films you compare it to: both Traffic and City of God are far superior, although this is certainly a good film – the direction was absolutely excellent.

    Agree about looking forward to a repeat viewing before the first is up.