Stranglehold: In 'Gomorrah,' the mob has a region in Italy in its grip
The movies can always find hell on earth. But it takes a certain uncompromising vision to hole up there for well more than two hours and leave you in fear for your life. "Gomorrah" begins with murders at a tanning parlor and ends with murders on a beach. Hell wants to take over as much of the movie's poor Naples region as organized crime does. One creates the conditions for the other to thrive.
Directed by Matteo Garrone, "Gomorrah" is both a staggering realist thriller and a jeremiad. But it's clear-eyed, too - a dispatch from in and around a Neapolitan housing complex that crime and globalization have suffocated to death. The buildings are Brutalist behemoths - concrete boxes stacked a mile off the ground. They look like ocean liners too battered to float. The concrete is corroded, most of the metal rusting, the public space cramped, and somewhere nearby there's the bombed-out shell of a long-vacant building. It's a housing complex. It's a prison.
While the movie is yet another saga of killing and corruption, unlike so many of its forebears, from "Scarface" to "City of God," there appear to be no spoils. The crime is organized around money, yet while we see cash (and hear it: counted Euros sound like applause), we never sense riches. Men like Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who runs money for one drug faction, are conscripted into this life as much as they are seduced by it.
Garrone and five other writers adapted "Gomorrah" from Roberto Saviano's incredible nonfiction account of Naples under the influence of the local crime syndicate, the Camorra. Saviano's book was a first-person journey into the many hearts of the beast. The film retains the book's you-are-there immersion. But Garrone splinters the narrative, then traces it along different commercial channels - industrial waste disposal, the garment business, construction, the drug wars.
As it moves among these unrelated story lines, the film creates the grand illusion of pure observation. Two young best friends, played by Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone, steal a cache of semi-automatic weapons and, to the consternation of a particularly peeved mobster, promptly mistake themselves for kings of the world. In a great iconic image, these two trawl a beach in their tighty-whities, firing at nothing in particular. Their presumed indestructibility contrasts with the North Africans, Eastern Europeans, and West Africans who risk their lives lugging containers of toxic waste into a vast quarry that's been turned into a landfill.
"Gomorrah" draws a generational line to connect middle-aged men to young ones. It's apparent how a kid like Tito (Salvatore Abruzzese), the delivery boy, could possibly become a toxic-waste baron like Franco (Toni Servillo) or, worse, a middleman like Ciro. Then there's Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor who for years has been working for a compromised garment dealer. He can taste independence, however traitorous, every time he sneaks off to teach scores of Chinese immigrants how to sew.
Both his and Ciro's lives flash before their eyes at least twice, most painfully when Pasquale sees Scarlett Johansson in a couture gown at a movie premiere and probably thinks about what could have been. If only he could find consolation in the fact that the movie he's in is better than any of hers.
Garrone is an exhilarating filmmaker, but "Gomorrah" is not a sensationalistic film. One young character quotes Al Pacino in "Scarface" and some of the thugs have a clubby hip-hop sensibility, but as in the cités of Paris, the favelas of Sao Paulo, or certain American housing projects, the fabulousness of gangsta life is a chic mirage that insults the day-to-day realities. When a man on a motorbike pulls alongside a moving sedan and opens fire, it's not the thrill of violence you feel. It's the awful shock, the immediacy of the disruption. Nothing sweet or serene in this movie stays that way for long.
As its punning biblical title suggests, "Gomorrah" is about decay and collapse. That besieged sedan goes careening into a garden of plaster casts of classic Roman busts and statues. The shattered pieces put a very fine point on the fall of Western civilization. At the housing complex, another statue - this one of a saint - is lowered ominously from one floor to another. It's a grim cinematic antonym of the great opening passage in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," in which a helicopter flies a statue of Christ above Rome.
"Gomorrah" closes with another Faustian elevation. A bulldozer lifts its full mouth to the sky. But it's a magnificently mistaken offering. Hell is in the other direction.