The typical gangster film is turned on its ear in this bold, shocking and barely fictionalized tale of The Camorra, the Italian crime syndicate. Director Matteo Garrone brilliantly adapts undercover reporter Roberto Saviano’s best selling book by deftly weaving five fascinating stories of corruption. Stripping away the false glamor so often associated with gangster films, he exposes the seedy underbelly of crime that is pervasive from street urchins through corporate business.

Saviano’s stark expose is projected onscreen without dilution of rank squalor and casual evil. There are no sharp suits, palatial estates or sports cars; young punks are wearing the same shirt for several days rather than flashing bling. The upper level of the syndicate is a group of fat sweaty men far removed from the opulence and comfort we see in American crime movies. Even they are only so many rungs up the ladder of this seemingly endless spiral of crime; when the time comes to respond to an outside conflict they wonder aloud if and when they will receive “orders” from above.

Unlike its namesake, the biblical Gomorrah, no God passes judgment here; the closing credits reveal the staggering truth about the extent and power of the organization as almost a plea for that god to intervene. (Could that plea be directed at the United States? One of the more telling factoids is that just as fictional Michael Corleone directed the American Mafia to do, the Camorra is investing its massive wealth in legitimate business ventures — including the restoration of the World Trade Center.) The publication of the book, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, November 2008) caused an uproar in Italy and forced the writer into hiding (he continues to live under police protection); likewise the director has received numerous death threats. Many of the incidents in the film, like the waste management scam and the tale of the two criminal teenagers, are based upon facts uncovered by Saviano while he was infiltrating the organization.

Gomorrah‘s five stories barely intersect on an individual level, but it’s clear that each subject wallows in the same pervasiveness of the Camorra. A pre-teen child looks upon the gangsters as a viable career move. Two teenagers try to emulate Tony Montana from Scarface, seeing the gangster life as a career of fame, pride and profit. A sweatshop tailor, wooed by the innocent desire to be respected as an artist unwittingly puts himself in the crosshairs. An aging bagman finds that the warring factions of the crime syndicate leave him no middle ground where he can survive. A fifth pairs an aspiring young man with a seemingly astute mentor who is simply a white collar criminal seeking a promising lieutenant.

Not 20-minutes into the film, we observe several children horsing around in a small pool as the camera slowly pulls back into an aerial shot. We are stunned to discover that this bright green lawn surface around the pool is the one spot of color in a massive tenement, a pyramid of gray concrete filth surrounded by barren earth. It’s as if we were observing an ant farm with a zoom lens, a hive of hopelessness buzzing with corruption. Inside, trapped in cells and separated by gangplanks, those trying to survive the life must hide behind locks and peek around corners. When a backpack of cocaine packets arrives, the hum of the brazenly open drug market finds those in need of a dose scurrying with the same frantic fever as the rats in the dirt-floor basement.

In one telling scene we see one family moving to another part of the projects as the two factions prepare to go to war. Young Toto and his friend are being separated and calmly discuss the reality of the situation; soon they will be enemies and one of them might eventually have to kill the other. Then without emotion, just a quick and simple hug, they go their separate ways. For Toto this is just another rite of passage in a far-from-innocent childhood, like when he and other young boys don a bullet-proof vest and take a pistol shot at close range to determine their worthiness as potential young criminals.

Twenty-ish Roberto is the moral center of the film, a young man we first meet being handed over by his father to a fairly dapper gentleman who has offered him a job. This seeming mentor, Franco, turns out to be just as corrupt as everyone else, albeit on a white collar level. Franco’s suave and charming exterior appears at first appears promising until we realize that he is in charge of a humongous waste management scam where he undercuts legitimate removal and storage companies by dumping toxic waste into quarries and covering them up. “You dig it out” he promises the land owners, “and I’ll fill it up.” Franco’s brutish and cutthroat side is gradually exposed as he efficiently lies and poisons his way across the country with a smile while offering Roberto the justification that only through his efforts can these farmers and companies survive at all.

The most fascinating story centers on tailor Pasquale, an artist trapped in a sweatshop where “talking to the bookkeeper” means arranging a meet with the loan shark. Surviving job to job (usually underbid by his desperate boss) he is approached by Xian, a man who runs a Chinese factory and is aware of Pasquale’s talents. Xian wants to hire Pasquale to tutor and train his workers and offers money and the respect of his staff. (Ironically the affection and respect he receives in the factory where he is called “Maestro” also requires traveling back and forth to the factory concealed in the trunk of Xian’s car, where even the cramped quarters are offset by an ornate pillow for comfort.)

There is no happy ending in Gomorrah, nor is there a resolution. We drop into this world, follow these characters and then pull back out as if to say “here is but a snapshot of what continues to this day”. There are no heroes; we see that getting out from under means walking away from everything in your life and starting from scratch (although from Pasquale’s tale we wonder if the protagonists who seem to be on a better road will only encounter the Camorra again somewhere down the line). And while some are portrayed as villainous, for the most part we see that for many this is a life choice more than a conscious decision to become evil. It might be a poor interpretation of success and the respect that accompanies it, but when the alternative is to be the victim, what choice is there? It’s a bleak and powerful film that will leave the viewer stunned.

Criterion released Gomorrah as a two-disc set; the first contains the high-definition transfer of the original film in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound and English subtitles. While the video is sometimes soft in darker scenes (the subterranean areas of the tenement, for one) I had no problems with the overall presentation. The sound is excellent – clean crisp dialogue (in Italian), good use of side and back speakers and purposefully explosive during violent scenes. (Director Matteo comments about the need to have these violent episodes happen so suddenly that they shock the viewer as much as the victims). An English speaking trailer is also included along with 24 chapter breaks.

Disc 2 includes about two and a half hours of interviews, documentaries and deleted scenes. Five Stories, an hour long documentary on the making of the movie, utilizes observational on-set footage without interview or voice over. It’s fascinating to see the thin line between the actors and the actual residents of the housing project; two kids on a motorbike are ironic younger versions of Marco and Ciro. When rebuffed at their plea to be in the film they simply decide “let’s go rob somebody” and ride out of the complex.

We also get to observe Garrone’s directorial style to find that the film is largely improvisational with its dialogue (although it does not seem to be). In one clip he chides a group of actors for repeating similar phrases in successive takes, imploring that each scene must have a life of its own. Even the youngest actors are given little more than motivation and blocking; encouraged when they strike the right lyrical note and gently re-directed if they need to frame a plot point with a little better depth. The method yields the realism that makes Gomorrah so mesmerizing; it’s as if you are watching a documentary instead of a gangster film. And indeed, this is no fantasy tale – the Camorra has the tenacity of a cockroach and has proven incredibly difficult to combat and prosecute. As one clan, is prosecuted, several more reportedly spring up to take its place.

There are extensive interviews with both writer Saviano and Director Garrone as well as shorter pieces with actors Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato and Salvatore Cantalupo. While compared to many Criterion release these extras might seem thin, but I found that the onscreen features and the informative booklet (with essay from critic Chuck Stephens) were illuminating and provided sufficient enhancement to the film itself. I highly recommend this film on many levels, especially for those who appreciate the moral complexity of shows like The Wire.

RATING 8 / 10