Gomorrah

January, 2009, Drama

Directed by:Matteo Garrone

Starring:Nicoló Manta and Gianfelice Imparato

What a difference a few days can make; last Saturday I saw Defiance and complained that the on-location cinematography was wasted because it failed to convey a palpable sense of the physical locales in which the crucial elements of its story took place. Now comes this Grand Prize winner at Cannes (and Italy’s entry in the Oscar competition for best foreign language film of ‘08) with a sense of place that’s so engrossing audiences could be forgiven for believing they’ve actually visited the back alleys, dilapidated apartment blocks and seedy waterfront locations in and around Naples where the Comorra crime family has made its home for the past 30 + years. The members of that corrosive organization touche everything from drugs to high fashion to toxic waste disposal, ruthlessly sucking the life blood from southern Italian society. This grim expose of daily Neapolitan life as impacted by Italy’s most powerful criminal cartel becomes a guided tour into the darkest regions of Dante’s Inferno. 

Gomorrah’s plot interweaves the stories of 5 individuals who, alone or in gangs, engage in distinct categories of criminal activity that show in precise detail how interlocking groups control entire neighborhoods and infiltrate industries on a scale suggesting either wholesale corruption of the criminal justice system or staggering police incompetence. Lookouts stand in plain view of the open hallways in apartment complexes, announcing the arrival of the authorities or suspected members of enemy gangs, youngsters barely old enough to enter high school are recruited to make drug deliveries, corrupt farmers lease their fields for the creation of large-scale toxic waste sites and the sweat-shops which produce the nation’s high fashion exports feature rigged bidding and the brutal elimination of competition. 

Personal patronage is the odious glue that binds this oppressive system together; you have to be connected in order to get ahead and one’s sponsor can extract a frightening price for career opportunity. Deviation from established criminal norms simply isn’t tolerated; violent intimidation is both rampant and omnipresent, bribery’s endemic, payoffs winked at and assassination the price paid for failure to play by these perverted rules. Permeating it all is a pervasive sense of isolation; in these mean streets, criminals may work together, but always with vigilant suspicion of one another; alliances are only employed when convenient and treachery is the principal means of getting ahead. 

Writer/director Matteo Garrone hasn’t fashioned this Brueghel-ian world from the fetid backwaters of a polluted imagination; he adapted Gomorrah’s screenplay from the best-selling expose written by Roberto Saviano. (The author has been under ‘round the clock armed protection since its publication.) Aided by the stunning cinematography of Marco Onorato, and a cast of frighteningly realistic actors, Garrone has created an unimaginable urban nightmare out of dilapidated apartment buildings, graffiti-laden and garbage-strewn public spaces, cavernous parking garages and the cramped, poorly-lit living quarters of both victims and those who prey on them. This movie is as far from the artfully-designed aura of The Godfather trilogy as can be imagined; the denizens of Gomorrah live deep inside the menacing shadows of a felonious social structure where even the simple act of venturing out of one’s apartment carries potential risk. The young grow up too soon and die too young; the old play out their final days scrapping by on miserly handouts from those they obediently served in the past. Thus do the perpetrators themselves become victimized by the next generation who inherit the system and perpetuate it. Gomorrah brilliantly epitomizes Thomas Hobbes’ brutal declaration that “The condition of man…is a condition of war of everyone against everyone”. 

The results of this remorselessly penetrating examination of a society so thoroughly corrupted that the abnormal passes for everyday urban life requires viewers with strong stomachs; nearly two dozen people walked out of the showing I attended, stunned by the film’s casual brutality and its depiction of lives that are in every sense of the word, “nasty, brutish and short”. Perhaps it will take this kind of cinematic shock therapy to rouse Italians to deal more decisively with the heritage of organized crime that’s become such a blot on the country’s reputation…but Gomorrah’s message suggests that victory will be a very tall order.  

The verdict? An excoriating look at a society in meltdown that will offend many - - but which makes for some of the most riveting viewing of the last decade.    

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