Saturday Night At The Movies

It started in Naples

By Dennis Hartley

Gomorrah: Beach blanket fungoo.

OK, here’s the paradox. Gomorrah is one of the most mundane films ever made about organized crime; yet it may be the most truthful onscreen portrayal you will ever see. Eschewing the romanticized glamour of the Warner Brothers’ gangsters, the operatic pulp of Coppola’s mob scene, or the “wise guy” poetry of Scorcese’s mean streets, director Matteo Garonne opts for a neo-realist portrait of opportunism and brutality at its basest level. Modern Naples is the setting; so if you’re looking for the Sopranos…fuhgetaboutit.

The episodic, leisurely paced storyline (such as it is) tangentially links several Neapolitan characters who all become involved (to varying degrees of success) with the insidious criminal network known as the Camorra (not to be confused with the Sicilian Mafia). There’s a young boy who is recruited as a drug runner. In one of the more jarring sequences, he lines up outside of an abandoned building along with other young candidates, who each await their “turn” to audition for a job by donning a Kevlar vest and then taking a bullet in the chest at point blank range. Those who are quickest to jump up and dust themselves off are congratulated for “becoming a man” and then hired. (I think I’ve actually had a few job interviews that went like that). Another storyline follows a tailor who works both sides against the middle, designing for a mob-controlled clothing factory by day and moonlighting as a consultant for a Chinese sweat shop that specializes in black-market designer knock-offs. We follow a typical work week in the life of a mob-backed contractor who makes backroom cut-rate deals with manufacturing companies to help dispose of their toxic waste (illegally, of course). And in what is perhaps the film’s closest brush with something resembling a tragic cautionary tale, we follow the exploits of a pair of cocky, wet-behind-the-ears teenaged pals who worship the Al Pacino version of Scarface , and fancy themselves to be a pair of up-and-comers in the local underworld.

If you are expecting traditional expository narrative, seek elsewhere. Six writers are credited on the screenplay (including director Garonne and journalist Roberto Saviano, author of the source book) which suggests the possibility of too many cooks peppering the ragu. I have to admit, I had to re-watch the first half of the film almost immediately, because I was having some difficulty differentiating between some of the characters; I also found it a little murky most of the time as to who was “warring” with who, and why.

But perhaps that is the point of the film-that there is no point to the violence; no one ever really “wins” (an eye for an eye eventually makes the whole world blind, and all that). I got the feeling that the matter-of-fact depiction of violence and avarice that pervades Naples was being posited by the filmmakers as a systemic issue, which has been enabled for far too long by the relative complacency of the local populace. The director post-scripts the film with a sobering list of statistics which enumerates the body count left in the wake of Camorra’s activities over the years (not just from bombings and shootings, but “collateral damage”- like public health hazards from the illegal toxic waste disposal).

Many are comparing this film with City of God, the popular 2002 Brazilian film about the modern crime-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro. While it does share a similar milieu, I found it to be a much closer cousin to The Wire(the criminal cultures of the port cities of Baltimore and Naples have a lot of surprising parallels). Like the (excellent and much-missed) HBO crime drama, Gomorrah doesn’t prescribe any antidotes to the societal ills that it observes, nor does it try to cloak its narrative in a morality play. It simply presents us with The Way Things Are-the generally quiet desperation of everyday drudgery, punctuated by the occasional moments of adrenaline-pumping excitement and/or heart-stopping fear (mobsters take their pants off the same way as anyone else). If you prefer tidy endings, be forewarned; for unblinking realists, this may be an offer you can’t refuse.

Note: Gomorrah has opened in select cities; but is also currently on PPV in some markets. There is also a Region 2 DVD in release; street date for Region 1 is October 10.

Previous posts with related themes:

Eastern Promises/This is England

Slumdog Millionaire