A Mafia saga minus the Hollywood glamour

'Gomorrah' brings to light the dark ways of Italy's crime world

In ''Gomorrah'' (right), director Matteo Garrone (top left) and journalist Roberto Saviano (above left) tell five stories that center on the deadly inner workings of the Camorra, the subject of Saviano's tell-all book on the Italian criminal organization. In ''Gomorrah'' (right), director Matteo Garrone (top left) and journalist Roberto Saviano (above left) tell five stories that center on the deadly inner workings of the Camorra, the subject of Saviano's tell-all book on the Italian criminal organization. (Clockwise from top left: ifc films; mario spada/ifc films; gustau nacarino/reuters)
By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / February 22, 2009
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The cinematographer's palette for Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah" tells you everything you need to know about the world it depicts. The film's unflinching vision of the world of minor gangsters, hired killers, and drug dealers - each a petty functionary in the shadow government of the Naples-based criminal organization known as the Camorra - can either be seen in long shot, from which it is too far away to discern, or in extreme close-up, from which it is too close to get away.

Based on journalist Roberto Saviano's book of the same name, which ignited fiery controversy upon publication in Italy in 2006, "Gomorrah" is an immersion into the social rituals, business ethics, and private hopes of a profoundly unfamiliar world. By the time you get close enough to understand, it is too late to escape.

Director Garrone approached Saviano after reading his book, and the pair collaborated on crafting a screenplay. The process of turning Saviano's first-hand reportage into dramatically plausible and journalistically rigorous storytelling was a challenge. Saviano, who had spent so much time with the people he wrote about in "Gomorrah," was concerned about being untrue to the people he had come to know so well. "My greatest fear," he said in an e-mail exchange, "was that it would be diluted into a form more accessible and more immediate that would leave less space for reflection."

Garrone and Saviano had initially thought of turning "Gomorrah" into 10 hourlong television episodes, each devoted to a different character from the book, but for financial reasons turned toward the big screen and a work composed of five such stories: A timid Camorra moneyman, a talented tailor in a local clothing factory, an apprentice trash-hauling official, a teenager teetering on the edge of Camorra membership, and two teenage stickup men are our guides through this Dantean underworld.

It was crucial to Garrone and Saviano alike that their film scrupulously avoid delivering a verdict on its characters. As Saviano described it, "It suspends all judgment, not for lack of taking a position, but because it prefers to have the facts speak for themselves."

The fallout from Saviano's book further complicated collaboration. "I was obliged to write about the Camorra," noted Saviano, "because I wanted to talk about reality, the world, and to do it I realized I couldn't fail to consider the most profitable economic enterprise headquartered in Italy: the Camorra." "Gomorrah's" unflinching depiction of the Camorra - an Italian organized crime menace far less well-known than the Sicilian Cosa Nostra - rattled its leadership, unused to negative publicity, and Saviano was forced into police protection, which he still requires.

"It was difficult at the beginning," said Garrone in an interview, "and then always worse." There is much about "Gomorrah" that will remind American viewers of Hollywood's long history of gangster mythology - and purposely so - but Saviano's status is a grim reminder of the deadly seriousness of this film.

"For me, it was a science-fiction movie sometimes," said Garrone with a laugh. Released in Italy with subtitles, to translate its characters' Neapolitan dialect, "Gomorrah" was an unexpected success with native audiences. The unanticipated confluence of the film's release with a crisis in Naples, in which a Camorra-controlled trash-hauling industry and landfills overstuffed with toxic waste kept garbage uncollected for weeks, only added to its relevance.

Garrone's frame of reference for "Gomorrah" was the work of Italian neorealists, Roberto Rossellini's "Paisan" in particular. With its shifting frame of reference, multiple interlinked stories, and focus on the lives of the Camorra's foot-soldiers, "Gomorrah" is a neorealist's vision of what a gangster film might be.

"I thought there was the possibility to make a Mafia movie different from all the others. Without any glamorizing of the characters, from the inside, without a hero," said Garrone. This approach required a no-frills directorial style, which sought little attention on its own merits. "If I shoot the movie wanting to show how good [I am]," Garrone said, "I risk that the audience thinks about me instead of the characters."

The teenage boys firing their weapons dream of being Tony Montana, but "Gomorrah" deliberately shuns Hollywood thrills. Its realm is an expanse of barren, abandoned spaces, only partially filled by trash barrels, grim maquiladoras, and drug dealers. In one bravura deep-focus image, Garrone frames children splashing in a makeshift pool and drug-running gunmen crouched on a roof. Crime and daily life are all part of the same master shot, inextricably intertwined.

Taking the lead from Saviano's book, "Gomorrah" is a film about the diverse threads of the Camorra's malign influence. The film's allegiances are so decidedly with those at the bottom of society that a Camorra civil war is glimpsed only at the margins. It is "criminal reality free from any spectacle or mythmaking whatsoever," according to Saviano. Haunting moments of transformation are predicated on the slightest gestures: a movie star glimpsed on television, dropped pieces of fruit, a bulldozer hauling away a fresh load of trash.

Much like another recent stark exploration of the mythos of violence, "Waltz With Bashir," "Gomorrah" is a corrective to years of voluntary national delusion. "The movie talks about social problems in Italy that are very actual," said Garrone. The film's unflinching rigor stands in diametric opposition to a live-and-let-live attitude regarding organized crime's grip on society. It is also a plea for the neglected of Naples - those same people who are driven by necessity and desperation to serve as the Camorra's functionaries.

More than anything else, "Gomorrah" seeks to ensure that we understand its citizens without blaming them for the world in which they live. To explain, Garrone returned once more to his touchstone, Rossellini: "In 'Germany Year Zero,' he wrote something that you can translate exactly to 'Gomorrah.' He said, 'Most people are not aware of their own conditions.' "

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