Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah is a film that requires, demands, and rewards our attention. In its opening sequences, it introduces a dizzying array of characters and potential plotlines, and expects us to keep everyone straight and figure out exactly what they're up to. To a casual, disengaged viewer, these scenes may seem aimless. But an adjustment is required, to cinema from a foreign soil, free of the flat-footed explosion that plagues so much of American film. You have to focus on a film like this. Once you have, it works you over.
Director Garrone is one of six credited screenwriters; the film is adapted from the bestselling book by Roberto Saviano, which detailed the inner workings of organized crime in Naples, Italy so thoroughly and with such accuracy that Saviano became a marked man (he was given a permanent police escort by the Italian government). His focus is the Camorra, the oldest criminal organization in Italy (older than the Mafia, and arguably more powerful).
Garrone's adaptation follows five of the multiple story threads from the book, spanning from kids on the street to men of power (think of it as a kind of Italian Wire). We meet Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a 13-year-old grocery delivery boy whose morals are quickly corrupted when he joins a street gang; Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), a pair of Scarface-quoting stick-up kids with a self-destructive streak; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor in the Camorra-controlled fashion industry who takes a high-paying risk when he begins training workers at a Chinese sweatshop; Franco (Toni Servillo), who coordinates the illegal dumping of toxic waste; and Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a powerless money man whose loyalties are clearly for sale.
The first words that blast across the screen are the most comforting ones imaginable in preface to a gangster film: "Martin Scorsese presents." It's easy to see why Scorsese took to the picture, with its dark criminal overtones, played out in a style that is simultaneously fresh and clearly steeped in the tradition of Italian neorealism. Garrone's filmmaking is spare, clean, direct, no-nonsense; his organic camerawork manages to pull off the neat trick of being stylish without being showy (okay, the shot near the end that follows Marco and Ciro's motorcycle is pretty showy). He uses no score and precious little source music, and he gets the kind of hyper-naturalistic performances from his cast that feel like documentary, like moments grabbed rather than staged (the bonus featurette spotlights a working method that not only encourages improvisation, but insists on it).
The picture has moments of warmth and flashes of humor, but they are fleeting; when the violence comes, in happens in a flash, and there is skill and real terror in the brutality. After a good ninety minutes of set-up and disparate storytelling, Garrone begins to pull the drawstrings, to bring the seemingly disconnected threads together into a searing, powerful conclusion that lands like a punch to the kidney. A palpable sense of cold anxiety pervades the closing passages, as each story slams into its inevitable conclusion; one might wish for an ending that holds out a little more hope, but that would be an artifice, a fraud. For these people, it was never gonna come out any other way.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
Criterion's 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer lives up to the label's usual high standards. Within the gritty visual scheme, exteriors are (often deceptively) warm and inviting. Iinteriors are nicely dimensional (taking advantage of cinematographer Marco Onorato's focus play) and frequently rich with colored lighting or gloomy darkness without being overpowered by those elements. Director Garrone doesn't utilize an abundance of close-ups, but when he does, the detail work is excellent (particularly the frequently weathered skin textures). Black levels are deep and full, contrast is strong, and the smattering of grain enriches without distracting. Only one complaint: as has happened in nearly every foreign film since the beginning of imported cinema, the white subtitles are sometimes hard to read due to white objects or light in the 2.35:1 frame. There was a brief, shining period in the early part of the decade where I thought we'd all decided to go with yellow subtitles, but alas, I'm mistaken. Nothing vital is missed, but it is an occasional irritation.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Italian track isn't quite as robust. To be sure, dialogue is well-modulated and effects are tight and crisp--gunfire packs a jolt (a burst of machine-gun fire on a scene cut made me flinch) and the frequent sounds of passing cars and zipping motorcycles pan nicely across the room. The trouble is that the rear speakers are barely heard; this is mostly a front-and-center mix that would have benefitted from a more fully-utilized soundstage. The LFE channel gets a couple of nice showcases, though, notably the bass from the dance music of a car radio and a strip-club scene.
Bonus features are high quality, if a little skimpy by Criterion standards. The primary extra is "Gomorrah: Five Short Stories" (1:02:32), or, as it is titled in the featurette itself, "Five episodes from the film." It's rather a no-frills documentary--there are no interviews, just on-set footage intercut with corresponding clips, offering an interesting (if perhaps overlong) fly-on-the-wall portrait of a director at work. My favorite moment: a fascinating interlude of between-take instruction to actors, in which Garrone scolds, "You're starting to say the same lines every take, and it sounds fake... every take is its own story."
Director "Matteo Garrone" (22:30) is the focus of the next extra, a July 2009 interview in which he discusses the origination and culmination of the project (including the considerable dangers of the shoot). The next interview is with "Toni Servillo" (13:54), who plays Franco the tailor; he discusses how he came to Garrone and got involved in the project, as well as his thoughts on the character. Imparto and Cantalupe basically do the same in the "Actors" (10:32) featurette, while "Roberto Saviano" (43:00) is a lengthy interview with the author of the book, discussing the themes of the book and the film.
Six interesting if unessential Deleted Scenes (12:55 total) follow, and the effective Trailer (2:28) closes out the disc.
Gomorrah's scattershot storytelling may test even the most patient of viewers, and it does indeed drag in some spots. But when it pulls its far-flung elements together into a closing symphony of blood and dread, it is powerful, skilled filmmaking of the highest order.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.