Goodfellas these are not
by Jason Blair
GOMORRAH: Directed by Matteo Garrone. Written by Garrone, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso and Roberto Saviano. Cinematography, Marco Onorato. Starring Gianfelice Imparato, Nicolo Manta, Carmine Paternoster, Salvatore Cantalupo, Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone. IFC Films, 2008. R. 137 minutes.
Featuring real gangsters and based upon a book so realistic that its author, Roberto Saviano, now lives in protective custody, Gomorrah is a bleak, unrepentant crime drama that never stylizes the violence it depicts. It is at once tender and vicious. Its protagonists exist at the edge of a brutal crime syndicate — the Camorra, note the pun — a molten center which they’re trying to escape or infiltrate or, in one case, aren’t even aware of. What makes Gomorrah so extraordinary are the tiny human moments of wonder and weakness it contains, moments of fear and betrayal so crystalline that it resembles a documentary on the subject of organized crime in Naples, Italy, where the film is based. Instead, Gomorrah is a profound achievement in Italian gangster epics, an extension and correction of The Godfather’s self-importance and The Sopranos’ sentimentality. Unfortunately, the film is so densely interwoven that a second viewing is almost required. Watching it again, I was struck by the relative calm of the early frames. By the end of Gomorrah, everyone is dead or on the run.
In Gomorrah, every street is a mean street. The suburbs of Naples are so denuded, the landscape so scraped bare, that were it not for the accents and occasional “Ciao, bella!” you’d think the film took place in Iraq. The film presents five stories of varying involvement with organized crime, each loosely organized around an apartment complex presided over by the Camorra. The film opens with Totò (Nicolo Manta), a 13-year old boy who delivers groceries throughout the complex but who will, before long, attract the attention of the gangsters. The oldest is Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a slow-moving money carrier, the classic middleman who overestimates his importance but who isn’t as thick as he seems. Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is a respected tailor in haute couture who at night gives secret lessons to his Chinese competition. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are a couple of small time thugs who, when they aren’t acting out Scarface, see themselves as bringing down the Camorra. Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is an assistant to a waste management mogul, a rising star who soon becomes conflicted at the thought of poisoning southern Italy.
As precise as it is universal, Gomorrah manages to carry a large storyline forward — the split of Camorra into rival factions — while carefully depicting the impact of that split on its protagonists, most of whom are peripheral to the action. It’s like watching Traffic without the gloss. Gomorrah’s residents live in near-ruin, their apartments seemingly crumbling around them, but Totò, Roberto and the others somehow manage to find strength and humor in their lives. Note the argument between Roberto and his employer as the tailor is wheeled through a hospital on a gurney. Witness Marco and Ciro, having discovered a cache of guns, take to the marshes in their European underwear, spraying bullets into the air. Don Ciro resorts to wearing a bulletproof vest in his own neighborhood with all the urgency of changing his shoes. These aren’t the grandiose, bellicose moves of a typically inferior mob drama. This is the stuff of great drama and great art.
Toward the end, Roberto the tailor catches a glimpse of one of his dresses on television, worn by the actress Scarlett Johansson. If the situation seems a trifle unlikely, his reaction — is he gloating, ashamed or nostalgic? — more than makes up for it.
Gomorrah opens Friday, April 10, at the Bijou.