Friday, February 13, 2009

Italy’s Gomorrah

The Camorra was robbed. Oscar watchers were stunned when Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s epic examination of Italian organized crime, failed to make the short-list for best foreign language film. Frankly, the Camorra was probably pleased by the snub. Roberto Saviano, the author of the book which inspired the film, has been granted indefinite 24-hour police protection by the Italian government. Recently, Salman Rushdie voiced his support for Saviano, telling the media: “Saviano is in terrible danger. Worse than me.” Opening today in New York, Garrone’s Gomorrah (trailer here) starkly and unsentimentally dramatizes Saviano’s expose of the Camorra’s pervasive violence and corruption in the Naples region.

The Camorra is not the Cosa Nostra. While it generates billions of Euros in illicit income, their clannish organization extends down to the neighborhood block level. The corrosive effect of their lawless reign is apparent in every frame of Gomorrah. Naples is one of the oldest and most celebrated cities of Italy, a member-state of the G7, EU, and NATO. Yet in Garrone’s film, it looks like a squalid third world country. In many ways the Camorra is directly responsible for that condition, not the least being their environmentally dubious waste management enterprises, which hold an effective monopoly thanks to their cut-rate prices.

Gomorrah follows a number of very average people who are involved with the Camorra, in one way or another. Don Ciro looks like a nervous accountant in a Members Only jacket, and that is not far wrong, but the accounts he manages are the small weekly remittances to family members of Camorra soldiers keeping silent while doing time. Pasquale, probably the film’s most sympathetic character, has a passion for garment work, daring to moonlight with a Chinese competitor to his Camorra affiliated boss.

We also meet two young Camorra recruits. Roberto essentially lands a management training position in the waste management division, while thirteen year-old Toto is gung-ho for the more blue-collar work of a Camorra soldier-in-training. Everyone is quite ordinary, except for Marco and Ciro, two true loose cannons with a taste for chaos, trying to establish themselves as free-lance gangsters.

Garrone’s approach is fascinating, draining the subject matter of all false romanticism. Honor means nothing in Gomorrah, it is all about violence, fear, and money. Garrone stages killings particularly effectively. Even though they are frequent, they are always brutally realistic, coming as a complete shock. However, his style is so matter-of-fact, he allows little opportunity for emotional investment in the characters’ dramas. As a result, it takes a while to acclimate his Altman-esque panorama of vicious thugs and their tacky bosses. Eventually, it all clicks, as one becomes aware of the massive tragedy represented on-screen.

Ultimately, it is the drabness and banality of Gomorrah that are most disturbing. These are not Mafiosos in shark-skin suits committing shocking acts of violence. It is neighbor killing neighbor. Demanding but memorable, Gomorrah is an uncompromising film, both substantively and stylistically. It opens today in New York at the IFC Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.