Based on Roberto Saviano’s widely acclaimed 2006 book, Gomorrah deals with the crime syndicate known as the Camorra. Less well known but larger than the Mafia, the Camorra dominates the southern Italian region of Campania, particularly the city of Naples. The organization’s tendrils reach very high (the film’s final title card asserts that the Camorra has money invested in the rebuilding of the Twin Towers), and the distance between the grunts getting killed on the streets and the men who actually get the money widens every day. Saviano’s investigative work, a mixture of prose and journalistic reporting, explicitly described the inner workings and business connections of the Camorra; he has been living under a permanent police escort ever since the book was published.
Director Matteo Garrone clearly tried to emulate Saviano’s news-report style and epic scope by giving his 2008 adaptation gritty, documentary-style visuals and a multi-layered narrative combining five intertwined stories. The tales presented deal with the lowest levels of organized crime: the foot soldiers, the gang members, drawn in to the Camorra either out of fear for their own lives or misguided ambition. Swirling through the slums of Naples, we get a sense of the breadth and power of the organization and the way it corrupts every life that it touches.
There is Don Ciro, a timid middleman who delivers payments to the families of imprisoned clan members. There is Roberto, a young graduate who goes to work with Franco, the head of a toxic waste management company that illegally dumps the waste in unused quarries. There is Pasquale, a haute couture tailor who works making counterfeit dresses, but begins to help a group of Chinese dress-makers who are rivals to the Camorra. But perhaps the most memorable, and most poignant, sections are those dealing with teenagers, the kids forced to find a way to survive in this never-ending cycle of crime and violence. Totó is a grocery delivery boy who falls in with a local gang, eventually forced to assist in the murder of his best friend’s mother. Marco and Ciro are two headstrong wannabes, who belong to no gang but share an obsession with the crime-glamorizing Al Pacino flick Scarface; dreaming of seizing power from the Camorra, they wildly steal guns and drugs, bringing them to the attention of the local clan boss.
Garrone does an excellent job of setting up all these characters and keeping their stories straight. Even if you get confused about a specific scene’s location or characters, it hardly matters; the tone of corruption and hopelessness that pervades every frame provides a lowest common denominator. There is a sense that you shouldn’t even bother trying to remember new names or faces, since they’ll probably end up dead within the next ten minutes anyway.
Yet you can’t look away: Gomorrah paints a portrait so dismal, so sordid, so remorseless, it’s entrancing. As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the film, “there are no heroes, only victims.” You sympathize with most of the main characters, even if they aren’t heroic. After all, they are thrown into a life so wretched, toiling away at their little jobs, no hope of upward mobility, never seeing any of that $250 billion profit the Camorra pulls in annually. They just try to survive and go about their business, but know full well that the best they can expect in return from their business is a bullet to the head. It boggles the mind.
One of the best moments in the film comes when Pasquale the tailor, having narrowly escaped death and taken a job as a truck driver, sees actress Scarlett Johannson sporting one of his dresses on a film festival red carpet (the scene is based on the true incident when Angelina Jolie wore a counterfeit dress to the Oscars). For an instant, Pasquale is allowed to feel some pride in his life’s work; then he goes right back to work, hauling god-knows-what to god-knows-where in his truck. That’s the most reward anyone in this film is allowed, and its fleeting nature is heart-crushing.
Gomorrah stands as an antidote to all of Hollywood’s glorifications of organized crime, whether it’s Scarface, The Godfather, or any number of Martin Scorsese’s films. Sure, the lifestyle, the principles, the gangster code of honor and all that sounds good in the abstract, but the reality of it is far more perfunctory: die in a hail of bullets, and you’re just dead. There’s no dramatic slow motion, no heart-tugging trumpet theme. The Camorra will just keep grinding on, as if you never existed.
Gomorrah was famously not even nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2009 Oscars despite almost universal acceptance of Garrone’s work as a masterpiece. Now that I’ve finally seen it, I’m not surprised; the Academy, particularly the geezers who vote in the Foreign Language Film nominees, are a basically optimistic group. If you’re going to enter the tunnel, there’d better be a light at the end of it. Don’t expect to find any here.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars