Saturday, December 19, 2009


Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah (spelled without the 'h' in its homeland) is a film that seeks, Iñarritu-style, to tell a story through multiple perspectives with a subtextual link. It is also, despite being a film by Italians and for Italians, so heavily indebted to the crime pictures of Italian-Americans that not one but two characters look like young De Niros, one of whom is such a blatant ripoff of his Johnny Boy character from Mean Streets that I hope somebody sent a royalty check. And therein lies the problem with Gomorrah: it's so concerned with miming American crime films that it fails to offer up a unique portrait of Italy's own problems with organized crime.

Split into five distinct storylines, Gomorrah opens on a scene set apart from those stories, in which a group of gangsters relax at a salon. As they bask in tanning booths and pamper themselves with manicures, I couldn't help but think of MTV's recent nightmare Jersey Shore and fear that the "guido" lifestyle has affected even full-blooded Italians. As they fatuously argue and tease one another, another group of thugs enters and shoots the lot of them before leaving as quickly as they entered. This moment emphasizes the "here today, gone tomorrow" lifestyle of these criminals; one day they'll have everything in the world, the next they'll end up in a pool of their own blood.

The five stories all have their own abrupt conclusions, though not everyone must die in this world. Don Ciro, an impotent middleman, takes payouts to the families of incarcerated gangsters to remind them of clan solidarity and to prevent the temptation of squealing to the cops for a nice deal. The money, though, never seems to be enough, and every family rages and begs Don Ciro to secure more money for them from his bosses; he always assures them he will try his best, but even the families can plainly see he's too timid to demand anything of his Camorra bosses for himself, much less a group of strangers. Meanwhile, a young delivery boy, Totò, spots a couple of gangsters dumping drugs and a gun in a police chase, and he returns them to the gang, who accept him.

I don't even know what to write about this film, to be honest. There is a massive gap in my notes between first impressions and final thoughts: its narrative is multilayered but its meaning isn't. I enjoyed the lack of a contrived link between the five stories, allowing the stories to exist independently of each other in the narrative, but unlike Iñarritu's films, they don't match up conceptually as well, save for a basic reading of "crime is bad; some people love it and some people wish they could break free of it." That's certainly not a weak theme -- it's powered some of Scorsese's best works, as well as Pulp Fiction and a number of other films -- but Gomorrah never breaks free of any of its influences. When young Totò joins one clan and his close friend joins another, we know ultimately how the character will react to his new life. When Marco and Ciro, two teenagers who model themselves after Brian De Palma's Scarface, attempt to break into Neapolitan crime by stealing drugs and guns, we know immediately how the story will end. Garrone treats these situations, however, as suspenseful, placing all of his effort into shocking us with depictions of criminal life and never guessing that we might want something more.

Some of this, of course, is the result of Robert Saviano's novel, a mix of a fictional arc with factual news reporting he conducted. However, judging from the stories presented here, he does not appear to have gotten remotely close to the actual Camorra. Only three of the five stories feature any influence from the actual crime organization, and of them only one follows a character who is actually connected to the syndicate: we never see Don Ciro with his bosses, but at least we know that he's trapped in the Camorra, forced to take paltry handouts to loyal members and shyly deflect blame and frustration. Pasquale, a fashion designer, proves that even those with innocuous, innocent careers can somehow offend the Neapolitan crime lords when his enterprise offers competition to Camorra-controlled businesses.

The two most interesting stories have the least tangible connection to the crime syndicate. Marco and Ciro dream of breaking into Italy's underground, but they, like the film itself, define themselves by the movies they've seen. They remind me of Harry Hill from GoodFellas, two dumb, violent kids who see mafia life as the most opulent lifestyle in town. Unlike Hill, however, these kids never find acceptance in the crime bosses. It's impossible to root for these idiots, but they share a perverse moment of fractured innocence after stealing a weapons cache and shoot their spoils in the town outskirts, reciting all their memorized movie lines and blasting the hell out of imaginary Colombians (Tony Montana's enemy). More interesting, though ultimately unnecessary, is the subplot concerning a waste disposal company, amusingly not a front for the mafia but a legitimate business. The boss, Franco (Toni Servillo, so memorable in the other notable Italian import of the year, Il Divo) pays local farmers struggling with debt to essentially ruin their fields by dumping toxic waste in them to undercut competitors. His newest protégé, Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), witnesses his boss' crimes but suffers in silence, debating with himself whether to say something and lose the numerous perks of his position (for a legitimate waste disposal unit, these guys sure do dress and act like gangsters).

Garrone attempts with this subplot to connect the corporate crime that occurs every day without sanction to the actions committed by identified criminal organizations, yet the connection is tenuous. It speaks to the film's larger failure to convincingly link its various stories to the core of the Camorra. As Saviano used his reporting as a bedrock for the novel, Gomorrah relies on the testimony not of crime lords or lieutenants but low-level thugs, most of whom are not even involved with the organization but with gangs of Camorra rejects. It attempts to at least partially blame Italy's crime either directly or indirectly on the organization, ignoring socioeconomic and psychological factors that drive people to violent crime. Gomorrah reconstitutes the Italian mafia as the patriarch of Italy's disaffected youth, the neglectful and abusive father who drives the greedy to join its ranks and the poor to form their own groups. It's an absurd message, one made almost unbearable by its murky direction: Garrone appears to have confused hand-held shots without any sense of composition for "realism," and the shallow depth of field in nearly every shot speaks less to the narcissism and solipsism of these self-absorbed characters than the narrow focus of Saviano's supposed New Italian Epic. Ultimately, the greatest lesson I took from Gomorrah is that I really need to reevaluate my less-than-enthusiastic opinion of Michael Mann's use of semi-realistic video in his last two films, for at least he knows a thing or two about placement and detail.

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