Lights, Camorra, Action

Jason Jude Chan


As would befit a bare-all portrait of Naple’s almighty Camorra crime family, Gomorrah opens in the 21st century’s Roman bath: A health spa. Like its ancient analog, near-nude men engage in the usual gab, basking in blue, ultraviolet rays all the while. The image-keeping session, however, is abruptly interrupted when anonymous men burst into the facility to execute a vicious hit. This ultraviolent sequence—with its looping trance soundtrack and without a who or why—is disquieting and delivers Matteo Garrone’s first, very visceral shake-up of cinema’s tendency to mythologize All Things Gangsta. For 135 shadowy minutes, Garrone repeatedly stuns the unsuspecting eyes with these brusque pops from the cusp of the frame, each without Hollywood’s nerve-easing pizzazz. By doing so, the Italian director offers an on-the-money simulation of the Camorra’s invisible yet all-seeing position.
For these poor Neapolitan denizens then, a word like equipoise is only for the folks in Oxford. With billions of Euros at stake and a corrupting influence that snakes through every industry from fashion to waste management, fear of the Camorra is not just a FDR-dismissed abstraction, but, like nearby Vesuvius, a palpable threat waiting to erupt. In fact, 4,000 murders have been tallied by the mob since the ‘70s—far more than notorious bloodletters like the IRA and Cosa Nostra. With its tumbledown purlieus and dilapidated apartment complexes, this modern-day Gomorrah—destroyed not by God, but by gunfire and brimming drugs—stinks of sic transit gloria and is anchored by an inescapable feudal hierarchy: everyone, from grocer to goon, is a pawn in the mob’s centuries-old machinations. Born into this systematic quicksand, nobody moves for fear of hastening death.

Garlanded with the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes, this startlingly bleak adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s best-selling exposé on the Camorra’s ineluctable activities (both legal and illegal) is remarkable for how effortlessly Garrone threads the five, united-we-stand-for-Naples stories into a j’accuse rap sheet. From youngest to oldest, the hydra-headed narrative tracks a wide-eyed 13-year old looking for acceptance, two aspiring and trigger-happy Scarfaces, a desperate college graduate working for a Machiavellian businessman, an unappreciated prêt-à-porter tailor who dangerously outsources his talents to Chinese competitors, and an elder money-runner caught in a cutthroat power struggle. Even if the characters come across as representatives from a desired demographic rather than complex protagonists, the cast’s excellent, true-to-life performances lend an immediacy and totemic weight to the often shocking on-screen incidents. Taken alone, each segment feels blinkered; stacked, they form a devastating symbol of resignation to a faceless, iron-fisted regime.

In a no-frills style reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville’s no-exit oeuvre (a depthless, handheld camera wedded to day-in-the-life pacing), Garrone embroils the viewer in the netherworld’s mundane and murderous routine—one where life-and-death decisions are performed with the nonchalance of chores. We go on drug and payout routes, witness bedroom/backroom deals and their regional fallout, and sneak with the aforementioned tailor (himself hiding in a trunk) to an undisclosed factory for his risky sartorial lessons. The semblance of a plot appears to revolve around an internal feud between the numerous clans. Yet, despite pledged allegiance to a respective clan, the different sides are never clearly delineated—a probable nod to the confusion in a land ruled by unspoken codes. In the first of Garrone’s three “Bildungsroman With a Bullet,” teenage Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) comes of age when he upgrades from delivering groceries to drugs, only to soon reach that moral point with no return. Extorted to pick sides, he strays from his mother’s known choice—in this unnatural order, La Famiglia comes before family.  

As with any empire built on greed, innocence isn’t so much lost as it is illusory. In the film’s main housing slum, kids discuss rival sides like soccer teams. They’re even employed to drive trucks when workers strike at a landfill where the businessman Franco (Toni Servillo) illegally dumps toxic waste and poisons locals (a late scene with a basket of “bad” fruit is symbolic if clumsy shorthand). To their impressionable minds, all roads lead to the romantic idea (via films like Brian De Palma’s Scarface) of the indomitable mobster. Case in point: Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two hooligans who recite Tony Montana lines like gospel and emulate his overplayed style in preparation for their ascent to the Big Time. Indeed, they believe that the world is theirs: they rob drug dealers, steal weapons from the wrong people, and become the monkeys wrenching the local bosses’ patience and plans. In the film’s most memorable scene, the two test newfound firearms in nothing but underwear, their raw and mismatched bodies framed against one of cinematographer Marco Onorato’s ravishing, godforsaken expanses. It happens to be one of the film’s few scenes of freedom and, thus, exuberance. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before their top-of-the-world-ma! antics lead them to the abattoir.

Like so many Italian films, Gomorrah ends near the sea—for folks like Fellini, the natural altar of change. Garrone instead caps his dolorous epic with one final, unnatural bang—the shots that ring from these quietuses echo loudly, reverberating as they do in fact and fiction. The camera sweeps the landscape and eventually settles on the water’s ebb and flow—a perfect metaphor for the rinse-and-repeat nature of this mob’s status-quo stranglehold on this infernal region. In a breathtaking film that yanks the Mafia down from its glorified, studio-set Valhalla, this latest (but not last) arrangement feels an awful like business as usual. 

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