In the Italian province of Naples and Caserta, almost every aspect of day to day life is ruled by the Italian crime syndicate known as the Camorra, a group which recruits the young and allows few to grow old. Author Roberto Saviano has been under police protection since the publication of his book exposing the workings of these criminals whose name Saviano has wittily linked with the Biblical sinful cities destroyed by God, Sodom and "Gomorrah."
Director Matteo Garrone, who used a true life Mafia story and a cold, barracks-like setting for his "The Embalmer," gets a lot more ambitious taking on Saviano's multi-threaded story (adapted by Saviano, Garrone and Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Citi, Gianni Di Gregorio and Massimo Gaudioso). His earlier, carefully built psychological study is replaced here with total immersion, a disorienting effect that gradually comes together for those with the patience to follow five inter-connected story strands and scores of characters. "Gomorrah" is an intellectual, rather than emotional, jolt when one comes to the final realization that the people who live in this area exist in a constant state of fear.
The film begins with a multiple hit on some mob bosses enjoying a tanning salon, a bit of abrupt violence that sets the mood albeit none of the characters that will follow. As in "The Embalmer," cinematographer Matto Onorato uses color to great effect here, although the remainder of the film is mostly shot documentary style.
Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) quietly goes about his business paying off the families of imprisoned Camorra members, hoping to keep under everyone's radar. One of these is Maria (Maria Nazionale), whose son Simone (Simone Sacchettino) is best friends with thirteen year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) who also delivers their groceries. But Totò is recruited as a drug mule and a Camorra secessionist divide splits them. (In one horrific scene, we see a form of hazing given the young recruits, who, wearing a vest, must face a bullet shot from point blank range.)
Meanwhile, two other young guys, Marco (Marco Macor), and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) (also known as 'Sweet Pea') think they're outlaws when indeed they just appear to be incredibly stupid. Thumbing their noses at the system, they steal a Camorra weapons stash. Young college graduate Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is promised a terrific position in waste management by Franco (Toni Servillo), only to discover himself coordinating illegal dumping of hazardous waste under Dante Serini (Alfonso Santagata), who lets tweeners drive his trucks when an accident angers the real drivers. (It is said that if the illegal waste dumped in this region by the Camorra, which has caused high levels of cancer, was piled in one place, it would be twice as high as Mount Everest.) In another story, which illustrates the exterior reach of the Camorra, we follow a tailor, Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), who is exploited by his boss Iavarone (Gigio Morra) who makes big bucks knocking off or producing high couture. When Pasquale gets a chance at his own piece of the pie by teaching his skills at a competing Chinese sweatshop, he takes his life in his hands (and has it delivered back to him by someone unexpected in a rare showing of loyalty overcoming profit). We see one of Pasquale's dresses being paraded down the red carpet of the Venice Film Festival by Scarlett Johansson.
There are many other threads and power hierarchies threaded throughout, which makes "Gomorrah" at times seem like a Google satellite shot of a province blackened by corruption. But over the course of the film's 135 minutes, Matteo succeeds in plunking his audience within that crater to experience the darkness themselves, and while that experience may often seem like viewing a crowd from a moving merry-go-round, one cannot help but be left with a sense of overwhelming hopelessness. These people live in concrete apartment blocks, complete with dripping water, peering out from behind curtains when gunshots ring through the air. This is a place where a young boy makes his stripes with the most horrific act of treachery, where a faithful middle manager must constantly look over his soldier, where a farmer's gift is known poison to its recipient, where life has little value.
Matteo's work has been praised as the most realistic film on the Mafia ever made, and that is likely true, but it is also a cold and hopeless work which doesn't allow us to really connect with any of its characters. But then, that in itself is evocative of life under the Camorra where no one can be trusted.
The powerful mob faction called the Camorra rules the criminal underworld in Naples, Italy. Its influence is so great that everyone, including a young teenage boy and two young Turks, want to be a member of its crime family. But, there is a price to be paid, maybe the cost of one’s soul, in associating with the “Gomorra.”
Veteran Italian helmer Matteo Garrone (and co-scribe with a gaggle of other writers, including the source book’s author, Roberto Saviano) brings us a taut, sprawling drama about the Neapolitan crime family that rules its realm with an iron fist. The web of criminal activities is all-encompassing as it takes over legitimate businesses to cover the mob’s real intent one scam, for example, involves a legal landfill deal that turns both illegal and deadly to the civilian population. It makes money for the Camorra and the organization does not care if innocents are harmed and killed. This quest for power and fortune is the primary concern for the mob and “Gomorra” depicts this expertly.
There are five different stories, each written by one of the gaggle of scripters Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviano. Director Garrone ties these often-disparate stories together in a loosely woven tapestry that allows each plotline to be fully developed before they are tightly knit by the film’s violent conclusion.
Do not expect “Gomorra” to be a gangster film as done by Hollywood. This is not about drugs, prostitution or gambling, but of less “glamorous” criminal activities as toxic landfills and bootlegged haute couture. However, the sudden violence of this closed society is a very real thing and the actors, both veterans and novices, do a fine job creating a distinctive underworld characters.
Marrone musters a first class behind the camera team led by the diverse lensing of Marco Onarato. The long, artfully composed static shots are beautifully rendered while the action is handled with jerky, hand-held camera that gives “Gomorra” its documentary feel. The sunny Neapolitan backdrop is cloaked in grays and browns, lending the necessary dark feel to the locale.
The deft writing, fine character portrayals, solid behind camera craftwork and, above all, the skilled direction made “Gomorra” an obvious choice by Italy as its entry into the Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film. Unfortunately, it was not one of the five films selected as contenders for that prestigious award. Still, it is an in-depth look into a crime world very different from America’s. I give it an A-.
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