Early in the Italian gangster film Gomorrah, we are introduced to a pair of wannabe thugs acting out their favorite lines and scenes from Brian De Palma’s cocaine-fueled epic Scarface. “The world is ours!” they scream in an abandoned, depleted warehouse. This is one of many brilliant strokes in writer/director Matteo Garrone’s challenging take on the gangster genre. So blind is their idolizing of Tony Montana that, while they expect to live fast and die young like that film’s protagonist, they naïvely fail to realize how grisly and unglamorous their comeuppance will be.
|gomorrah, a movie directed by matteo garrone. now playing at the uptown theatre, 2906 hennepin ave., minneapolis. for tickets and information, see landmarktheatres.com.|
Tossing aside nearly all of the conventions and stylistic flourishes of the great gangster films and television shows of the past 40 years—Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, Pulp Fiction, The Pusher Trilogy, The Sopranos, and City of God—Gomorrah immerses the viewer in to its story at a speed that will leave the casual filmgoer behind. Watch this meticulously crafted and pragmatic genre piece closely and you will be rewarded with a wonderful, brutally honest film experience.
This really is the anti-Scarface. The gangsters here are not glamorized at all. With perhaps a few exceptions near the end, there’s not one sympathetic character for the audience to identify with. Garrone has fashioned a bleak but honest portrait here—he’s a director to watch. The violence in the film is quick and comes out of nowhere—as in Martin Scorsese’s gangster films. It’s obvious why Scorsese, who is presenting the film here in the U.S., is so fond of the film.
Gomorrah achieves a sense of realism rarely achieved in this genre. I don’t know firsthand what this world is like, but damned if I didn’t feel like I was watching reality happening on the screen. There is no score, only diegetic music, and the camera follows the many characters and their separate stories like a documentarian with unlimited access. Garrone never makes it easy for the viewer. Each story comes and goes. You have to be an active watcher to figure out who is who.
The five plot strands come and go with no real sense of connection, but I love that. We don’t need another coincidental crossing-paths movie. This is far more effective. On the surface this may look like another Crash (crap), Magnolia (brilliant), or Babel (mediocre), but really it’s not. The separate stories are like squid tentacles—they don’t make up a whole, but merely different parts of the beast.
So what’s this film about? A lot of things really (globalization, power, greed, to name a few), but mostly this is an exposé of Italy’s most famous mafia organization, the Neapolitan Camorra. Based on the book by Roberto Saviano—who has gone in hiding and travels with bodyguards for having revealed names of high-ranking officials in the organization—the film pares down the expansive tale into five interweaving narratives that provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of present-day Naples. It was the winner of the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but completely snubbed by the Academy for a foreign-language Oscar.
The five stories are all given proper treatment and length, though I was left wanting even more. An adolescent boy hoping to become a man by joining the local gang (this section contains one of the most harrowing scenes, when the boy is strapped with a bullet-proof vest and shot as a form of initiation); a man who delivers payments to families with relatives in prison; a businessman trying to dispose of toxic waste; a pair of arrogant and ambitious thugs unprepared for the consequences of their actions; and a high-fashion tailor who goes into business with shady Chinese rivals.
Gomorrah is similar to the HBO series The Wire in that the audience is thrown right into the middle of the story and has to catch up to know who is who and what each character is doing. Perhaps Gomorrah could have been better served as an HBO series, but what we do get is a completely successful rendering of a city and its inhabitants—hence the title.
Though I love this film (it was number four on my list of top films of 2008) it’s not the second coming of gangster films. It is not better than The Godfather or Goodfellas, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fantastic. It is. The film doesn’t aspire to rise to top of the genre, but why does it have to? It’s a new take on tired gangster clichés. Perhaps American audiences, so used to being seduced into the world of the gangster, won’t like this portrayal. That remains to be seen. Garrone has demonstrated how the gangster mythos in film has evolved. Where it will go next I do not know, but Gomorrah has definitely taken the next step.
Erik McClanahan is a freelance film journalist and critic in Minneapolis. He is also co-host of KFAI’s Movie Talk.