It’s all Hollywood’s fault. As far back as the earliest days of the cinematic artform, gangsters and mobsters have been romanticized into outsized figures of operatic grandeur. They are depicted as above the law slicks that take life by the throat and wring out every last ounce of power and influence. The culmination of this concept came in the post-modern movement of the ‘70s. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s mafia as Greek tragedy, The Godfather, and Martin Scorsese’s high strung Manhattan goombah’s (Mean Streets, Goodfellas), La Cosa Nostra has become synonymous with flowered filmmaking.
Thankfully, actual Italians don’t see things in such a revisionist, rose-colored manner. Gomorrah, the great new film from Matteo Garrone, shows the notorious Neapolitan syndicate Camorra (the title is a take-off on their name) in all its toxic waste poisoning, apartment building territoriality, and ruthless gun battle ambivalence toward human life. Applying a City of God, neo-realistic style to his interlocking stories of youth caught up in the corruption of the area, the film mixes narratives to show us how deep the roots of evil actually go, and how futile it seems to try and eradicate this mob-rule menace from its firmly ensconced arenas.
We are first introduced to Toto, a young teen who delivers groceries to the people living in a standard, sprawling Naples apartment complex. On either side of the structure are various affiliated gangs, each controlling and patrolling their own terrain. The lure of fast money and fake machismo draws him into the grasp of one of the rackets. Elsewhere, cash mule Don Ciro makes his various deliveries among the units. Paying out hush money to people protected by the mob, he’s constantly harassed by those who want more, and those who want him out of the area for good. Within the more “legitimate” ends of the business, a mafia wheeler-dealer buys up property from farmers to use as landfills for illegal dumping, and a pair of hoodlum wannabes spends their days defying the local leadership and acting out their Scarface influenced fantasies.
For all its “you are there” authenticity and sense of raw edged realism, Gomorrah is really nothing more than a well made cautionary tale draped in the dreary everyday truths of life in a Naples ghetto. It’s a brilliantly told exploration of how the modern mafia works, from the standard street hustling of crack and cocaine to more aggressive approaches like international business and influence within the fashion industry. Along the way, director Garrone gives us the hauntingly familiar foundations for why so many so-called “good” people end up as part of an octopus-like criminal element. The most fascinating characters here are the wannabe Tony Montana and his ‘Hello Skinny’ sidekick. With their put-on cockiness, sense of illogical entitlement, and nonstop riffing about the glory of guns (“I gotta SHOOT!” our Pacino channeler yells during one memorable scene), they’d be the comic relief here - that is, if their shtick wasn’t so pitiful, and didn’t hit so close to home.
Elsewhere, we marvel at the salesman like somberness of Don Ciro, failed ‘family’ man who is relegated to handing out payoffs to keep the organization’s loose ends as tied up as possible. As he handles each situation, from hospitality to degrading abuse, he shuffles along, silently acknowledging his never-ending indebtedness to the mob. Other characters are less clearly defined. A friend of Toto’s “defects”, going over to the other side of the struggle. This makes his mother an instant target, though we really can’t figure out why she has to ‘pay’. There are also other random killings where the objective is literally unknown to us. Certainly, this underscores Gomorrah‘s planned randomness, but it makes for a draining, disconnected experience.
Still, Garrone deserves a lot of credit for not turning things into a Tarantino like look at organized crime and its often too cool cinematic components. No one here is worth emulating, either in word, thought, or deed. The citizenry is seen as simultaneously cowardly and confrontational, pushing as far as they can before turning back to the bad guys for protection and support. Interestingly enough, there is very little law enforcement present, clearly something Garrone uses to suggest a inferred lack of police effectiveness in stopping the crime sprees, and in the end, few of who we met are left standing, either literally or metaphysically. Indeed, Gommorah is a movie so unlike the typical Hollywood crime film that it shocks us with its antithetical approach.
Does this mean it’s the best film of its kind, ever? Actually, no. Dramatic license allows for aspects of character and conceit to be explored in a way that actually further contextualizes the underlying themes and ideas. Instead of getting a straightforward set of good guys and worse guys, we get complex considerations of life, reputation, dignity, revenge, family, friendship, and the ever clichéd honor among the crooked. Gommorah doesn’t go in for all that nonsense. Instead, it peels back the continental façade of its Naples backdrop and lets the hideous horrors inside show through - warts, wasted lives, and all. Tinsel Town can indeed be blamed for making such ‘made’ man movies compelling. Director Matteo Garrone shows us how truly disturbing and unrelenting such a story can be.