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An Italian thriller from 2008 re-writes the mission statement for the crime genre. Forget the outdated concept of "the underworld", because the influence of organized crime now affects every part of our lives, no matter where we live.
American and English crime films of the post-war period were stifled by reactionary censorship. While the HUAC was busy publicly tarring socially oriented Hollywood writers, British censors came down hard on realistic treatments of crime. Stories of black marketers and razor wielding "spivs" were strongly discouraged, as if a filmic ban would make those problems go away. Freedom of speech and the press did not extend to movie screens.
Italy came out of the war in political disarray but with its artistic life, including the cinema, set free from Fascist control. Although few Italian crime films were distributed in the United States, they were comparatively raw, uncompromised and politically complex. Films by Alberto Lattuada, Pietro Germi and Mario Camerini pioneered the first neo-realistic exposés of the Mafia, while later crime epics by Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano, 1962, Hands over the City, 1963) depicted the tangle of political power and business corruption in Sicily and Naples. Unlike American films that concentrated on action and violence, these Italian pictures presented an appalling image organized crime as an inseparable part of political and business life.
Francis Coppola's Godfather films glamorized organized crime in a context that often bordered on nostalgia. The hyper-violent Scarface (1983) by Brian De Palma acknowledged the connection of the new drug-oriented rackets to international banking. Based on an English television serial, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic exposed the pathetic, publicity-driven "war on drugs" in all its deadly banality.
The lead on crime cinema returned to Italy just last year with Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah a scathing, brutal exposé of life on the North side of Naples, that the Camorra, the oldest and most entrenched of organized crime syndicates, holds in a grip that no police force can break. Based on a best-selling book by Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah interweaves the changing fortunes of a number of Camorra operatives. The "normal" security of the mob is shattered as a rebellion breaks out within the ranks -- violent vendettas carried out with gunfire.
Adding to Gomorrah's tense atmosphere is the fact that director Garrone filmed his show right on the Camorra's home turf. Author Saviano reportedly lives with 24-hour security protection due to gangland threats; after seeing Garrone's movie, we have no doubt that the danger is real.
Garrone's spare camera style dispenses with normal means of character exposition. Gomorrah cross-cuts between four simultaneous storyline, giving us an appalling awareness of just how entrenched organized crime is in these Neapolitan neighborhoods. Every street and building is policed by young Camorra foot soldiers keeping a close watch on all pedestrians and vehicles that come and go. There are few or no opportunities in the economically depressed government housing projects, where one must be on good terms with the Camorra just to maintain a dingy apartment. Nobody is independent of the mob's influence, and those who join its ranks are permitted no other loyalties. With dozens of young aspirants eager to sign on, any member who so much as balks will soon find themselves on the wrong end of a gun.
Barely in his teen years, the impressionable Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) delivers groceries for a living. He carefully observes the actions of older gang members. Recovering some drugs and a gun dropped during a police raid, he asks for and is granted a starter position in the gang hierarchy. But the rebellion in the ranks means that Totò's best friend is now his enemy. Even worse, his bosses want to use Totò's friendship with the motherly Maria (Maria Nazionale) to set up a punitive murder.
Hardworking tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) produces quality fashions but is underpaid by his low-bidding boss. He moonlights to take advantage of a Chinese entrepreneur's high-paying offer to teach competitive Italian techniques in a Chinese shop. Pasquale knows there'll be hell to pay if the Camorra finds out, as all such factories are firmly controlled by the mob.
Mob bagman Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is a meek individual given the job of doling out pensions to honorably retired gangsters and compensation for relatives of those in prison. Don Ciro also knows Maria but is too shy to express his feelings for her. The rebellion in the mob first shows itself when dissenting sub-managers stop handing over their earnings to their superiors. Caught in the bind between warring factions, Don Ciro's only way out is to cruelly betray a number of his closest associates.
Smooth-talking Franco (well-known actor Toni Servillo) hires the inexperienced and eager Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) for his toxic waste disposal company. Franco's low bids win him almost every contract, but he hires unskilled labor to illegally bury the chemical poisons wherever he can find Southern Italian landowners eager to earn an extra buck. Roberto is shocked by his employer's murderous irresponsibility, but can do little or nothing about it -- Franco is clearly connected to the mob.
Lethal teenage thugs Marco and Ciro (Marco Macor & Ciro Petrone) play-act scenes from Scarface while finding ways to pilfer from the Camorra mobsters. At first tolerated by the local boss, they go too far and steal a cache of hot weapons. As they "never planned to live very long anyway" and believe that the only barrier to chieftain status is raw nerve, Marco & Ciro decide to settle the problem by murdering the local boss charged with bringing them into line.
Matteo Carrone drops us without explanation into this enclosed world of thugs and punks; we soon pick out the parallel storylines on our own. The Neapolitan gangsters take their fashion cues from American Rap stars and dress in sports jerseys and expensive tennis shoes. Rub-outs are performed by hit men (or hit-children) riding on the backs of tiny motorbikes; middle managers check the performance of their dealers in person, cruising the parks and tallying sales figures on the fly. Garrone begins the tale with the opening salvo of the Camorra rebellion, as several chieftains are massacred under the electric-blue lights of a tanning salon; for a moment the movie looks like an Italian Science Fiction thriller from the 1960s.
The brutality extends to every aspect of life in northern Naples. The concrete housing projects are maze-like prisons. Frightened tenants barricade themselves behind iron gates, to no avail. A wedding party arrives on one apartment level while crooks carry on their business just above. The Camorra wields power by intimidation - no individual can escape betrayal by his neighbors, and every murder publicizes the necessity of cooperation. The corruption of innocence is taken for granted. Kids as young as 12 or thirteen are recruited by seeing how they react to being shot point-blank while wearing a bulletproof vest. Franco is taking no risk in hiring the impressionable Roberto, as everybody knows the dire penalty for informing. When Franco's truck drivers quit because one of their number is seriously burned by contact with their toxic cargo, Franco hires children to take their place. Roberto is dispatched to find seat cushions, so the kids can see out of the truck windows.
The utter lack of sentimentality -- a common ingredient of classic Italian neo-realism -- lends even the weird scenes in Gomorrah the sting of truthfulness. Wearing only designer underwear, loose cannons Marco and Ciro play "Scarface" as they test-fire their newfound machine guns in an empty marsh. They think they're bulletproof but the Camorra chieftains know exactly how to deal with them. Saviano and Garrone's ultimate message is that organized crime is destroying human society from the bottom up, corrupting the population while threatening it with ecological disaster. We're firmly convinced that Franco would eagerly dump radioactive waste in ordinary landfills, as long as he was insulated from the consequences. What's scary is the knowledge that much of big business around the world operates on the same level of moral responsibility.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah is a beautiful transfer of a deeply affecting crime story that delivers a constant threat of violence. The widescreen image has a docu feel but doesn't resort to grainy or degraded imagery; stylistic flirtations with color leeched to a sickly yellow, etc., appear to have finally passed. Italian pop music serves as exciting backgrounds for many scenes.
The extras begin with Five Stories, an hour-long making-of docu with strong insights into the unusual circumstances of the shoot. Garrone's locations in Naples are as chaotic-looking as earlier Italian sets, but we soon get the notion that many of the production people and even some of the actors are personally familiar with the crime-filled locale -- even young Salvatore Abruzzese has strong opinions about the realism of some scenes.
Criterion producer Kim Hendrickson delivers fine interviews with Garrone, actors Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato and Salvatore Cantalupo. Author Roberto Saviano makes the statement that it is imperative for citizens worldwide to stop thinking of crime in terms of Good Guys and Bad Guys -- every aspect of our lives is tainted. A selection of deleted material includes alternate versions of some scenes. A trailer is included as well. The standard DVD version of Gomorrah spreads the same content over two discs.
Critic Chuck Stephens provides an informative insert essay on what to many viewers must seem an alien environment, a corrupt world that may be the reality behind the random criminality served up as entertainment for our 11 O'Clock news broadcasts. The importance of Matteo Garrone's masterful film is its near-universal relevance: Francesco Rosi's groundbreaking crime films were largely limited to Italian audiences, but Gomorrah's lessons apply to most every nation on the globe. The film's key artwork expresses the crisis perfectly: like a modern Mabuse, a pistol-wielding colossus strides threateningly above a helpless urban landscape.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gomorrah Blu-ray rates:
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