Reviews

Gomorra

Matteo Garrone

Italy, 2008

Credits

Review by Timothy Sun

Posted on 05 October 2008

Source 35mm print

Categories The 46th New York Film Festival

Based on the bestselling non-fiction novel of the same name (which earned its author, Roberto Saviano, death threats and, subsequently, 24-hour body guards to this day), Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah is the latest in a long line of hyperlink films, like Syriana and Babel, that employ multiple storylines to weave a massive, web-like plot meant to illustrate a complex socio-political issue. In this case, it is the Camorra, Naples’ omnipotent, omnipresent organized crime ring. Garrone’s neorealist, nearly journalistic indictment of this societal cancer follows five different story strands whose only connective tissue is the fact that all of the characters, willingly or not, are controlled by the Camorra. There is the young boy, Toto, enraptured by the gangs; the eager and naïve college graduate who takes a job working for “waste management”; the testosterone-crazy adolescent kids, Marco and Ciro, who want to be Tony Montana, independent of the Camorra; the buttoned-up, petrified money runner, Don Ciro, caught in the middle of a gang war; and, at the mournful, emotional core of the film, Pasquale, a fashion designer owned by the Camorra who finds a second breath of life secretly teaching Chinese immigrants his art.

Garrone resists the facile plotting and gift-wrapped conclusions that have become clichés of hyperlink cinema—the characters here never arbitrarily cross paths, nor do they adhere to any predetermined arc. Garrone seems determined to catch them – and us – off-guard, dropping in on characters without fanfare and often without context. There is no Traffic-esque playing with the image, no beautiful and familiar faces to demarcate one strand from another (many of the actors are non-professionals)—everyone lives under the same cold gray sky, and, as the film progresses, the same oppressive fear. There are no genre pyrotechnics on display, either. Despite the subject matter and the ubiquitous violence, Garrone avoids turning the film into a glorified thriller—quite the contrary, the action becomes exhausting. The turning of the cinematic screws here is not to create suspense but to create banality. The escalation of violence becomes expected, numbing. This is undoubtedly Garrone’s intent, but, admirable (and difficult) as it is to strip away the appeal of cinema’s favorite fetish, it is not particularly interesting to watch or, in this context, to think about. For films like this to succeed, either each storyline must resonate on a human level or the complexities of the system the film is revealing must be new, insightful, unexpected (ideally, the film would accomplish both). This is why a series like The Wire is profound in ways that Gomorrah is not. The Wire invests in its characters; it is alive to the rhythms of their lives and almost incidentally starts to lay bear the way they and the respective bureaucracies they are a part of come together to form a system of corruption that is much bigger than they are. Gomorrah, on the other hand, with the exception of Pasquale and maybe Marco and Ciro, leaves characterization on the surface. We focus on the characters because the camera does, but there is no connection to them. The action becomes repetitive and when the time comes for these characters’ inevitably doomed comeuppances, it is difficult to muster a reaction.

To be fair, a TV show like The Wire has thirteen hours to live with its characters and to diagnose an illness, revealing one symptom at a time, the cumulative effect of which is devastating. Gomorrah has two-and-a-half hours, but, by focusing on the breadth, rather than the depth, of the Camorra’s reach, I’m not sure that it would be more satisfying even with more time. Aside from the relentless killing and the hammering home of the fact that the Camorra exists everywhere, the film has little to offer in terms of social analysis. The film’s thesis is that there is no “under” in “underworld” anymore—their world is our world. But is there anyone who will go into this film without already assuming the Neapolitan Mafia is extremely powerful and kills lots of people? The statistics that precede the end credits, stating in cold hard fact the evils of the Camorra, are, in some ways, more eye-opening than the film itself.

The film is not devoid of greatness, however, and there are scenes that sear into the brain, rising above the ferocious banality of the rest. One is the almost dream-like sequence where Marco and Ciro, dressed only in sneakers and underpants, fire off an arsenal of assault weapons they’ve stolen from one of the Camorra gangs. Surreal, terrifying and funny, it is perhaps the most direct and visceral expression of sexually fueled, pent-up adolescent rage I’ve ever seen (at least since McLovin shot up that cop car). It is also one of the few moments where the film bothers to pause and examine its characters in any sort of depth. Another indelible scene is Toto’s initiation into the Camorra, a sort of cherry-popping ceremony where anxious boys wait outside of a purgatorial cave to be called into a meeting with the Mafia boss. At the meeting, they put on a bullet-proof vest, are asked if they are scared, and then get shot. For all of Garrone’s sprawling, multi-narrative ambition, for all of his brutal, oftentimes shocking authenticity, this single scene says more about the Camorra and its hold on the populace than anything else the film has to offer. Still, the film is brave and sincere, rigorous in its anti-Hollywood, down-and-dirty aesthetic, full of sound and plenty of fury. I’m just holding out for The Wire: Naples Edition.

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