We solve problems created by others.
— Franco (Tony Servillo)
Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are playing gangsters. They point their guns at one another and make gunshot noises, their lanky adolescent forms alternately crouched, ready, and erect as they imagine themselves tough guys. “Tony Montana,” they shout, “The world is ours: the whole world, Miami, all of it!”
Their fascination with the American movie gangster is both ironic and apt, as Marco and Ciro live in Campania, where gangsterism is pervasive, the predominant business, the path of least resistance for young males. The boys pick targets for their youthful hatred and aggression, some perennial (the previous generation), others passing (“Shit Colombians are everywhere”). But the enemies’ identities are almost irrelevant. The point is to have enemies, someone on whom to wreak vengeance, someone to blame for the sorrow and rage the boys feel, or think they feel, based on the movies they watch and the daily traumas they absorb.
Ciro and Marco’s is one of several storylines explored in Matteo Garoone’s Gomorrah (Gomorra), the much praised Italian nominee for Best Foreign Film at last night’s Academy Awards. Based on Italian journalist Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System, the movie is by turns operatic and farcical, presenting the mafia as all-consuming, part longstanding culture, part grinding machine.
The boys are making their way through this machine, not so much enduring rites of passage as playing games en route to their expected ends as kingpins and rock and rollers. Sent on a minor drug errand by their mid-level boss, the teens make their own decision to take both cash and dope, riding away on their motor scooter, chased by black gangsters with weapons raised, ignorant of immediate consequences or long term effects. Their boss, Giovanni (Giovanni Venosa), is playing video games when they’re brought before him. “I can’t be made to look bad because of kids like you,” he chastises, barely looking at them, his face round and grizzled. “If you come to realize that you’re worth something, then you’re worth something, which I will determine and I will decide. You work for me, is that clear?” The teens hang their heads and nod, then ride off on their scooter again, reenacting the scene once they’re on there own. Mocking Giovanni, they decide that from now on, “We’re just for us, that’s all.”
Such selfishness is a way of life in Campania, neither original nor smart. When Marco and Ciro steal a stash of weapons (Beretta 93, Kuleshnikov, M12: they know all the makes), they think they’ve come into their own. But they’ve only made someone else angry, revealing again that the chain of violence in the mob — as in the world that is not theirs — is endless. Everyone thinks he can crook the house, and no one can: eventually, someone wants payback. First glimpsed as he’s making deliveries of drugs and groceries to apartments in a mob-owned apartment complex), 13-year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) sees his future in front of him every day. He thinks initially that getting to join in will help him feel included, maybe briefly secure. His task is both trivial and essential, part of the larger structure that keeps all in line. His dark eyes wide and observant, his expectations determined by his environment; following his deliveries, he passes other kids discussing the day’s news, who’s been arrested and who’s been killed. No one mourns much, except in public forums like funerals. Mostly, such social gatherings are just more occasions for more deal-making.
As Totò looks forward, Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) looks back. A money carrier, he fears the incursion of a new gang, and tries to position himself for survival. Instructed not to make decisions or judgments, but always only to “respect the list” of names and amounts owed, Don Ciro is increasingly afraid. At last he approaches the latest aggressor, his head bowed and shoulders stooped, his look that of a puppy seeking access to the pack. “I want to save myself,” he says, offering to do for the new organization what he’s done before. “You’re wasting your time, you’re more dead than alive,” the younger man sneers. “We have to score, kill, and we need money. If not, you die, because you’re part of the war. We’re the same, you and me, in this war.” While they come at their lots from completely different places, the kid is right in this way: nothing can escape this war, and every decision is a moral one, at some point, affecting the life or death of a neighbor, a friend, a family member. Don Ciro can no longer just “get along,” he must be stained, he must become immersed in a way he can no longer deny.
The scene of Don Ciro’s realization and no-return is like a baptism, the camera close on his startled, blood-splattered face, then watching from far and above, as he is surrounded by bodies seeping blood from their caved-in heads and exploded hearts. Gomorrah is punctuated by many such moments, when violence touches on men or children who believe themselves, just moments before, to be safe. Or at least, as far as they might imagine safety is possible. For Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) the tailor, working with an incoming Chinese entrepreneur, teaching his sewers to love their work as he does, seems lucrative and incidental. When his local don feels crossed, however, Pasquale is forced to see his decision in another context.
As much as victims and aggressors seek to repress consequences, they are, of course embodying them. And this is Gomorrah‘s most compelling insight, its understanding of perpetual pain and terminal hopelessness as all-purpose forces. They drive retribution but also anxiety, submission as well as dominance. Marco and Ciro, the Scarface fans, can’t see the history they invoke and repeat, they only see the ever-present of the screen, the nobility of their fantasy. They can’t anticipate the sheer ugliness, the futility of death.
Neither does Franco (Tony Servillo) comprehend the metaphorical expanisiveness of his current enterprise, dumping toxic waste into local quarries. While his young apprentice Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is increasingly appalled, he makes a deal over a client’s deathbed with the imminent widow, their assessments echoing over the dying man’s rasps and moans. Roberto grants viewers a brief moral-seeming respite, as he speaks his horror out loud. The stories gangster tell themselves, that they protect people or help them to live, he says, is belied by their methods every moment, the bodies they leave behind or cover over in shallow graves.