Friday, February 19, 2010

An Italian Hell

Before I properly start my review of Gomorrah, a very fine 2008 film from Italy, I must offer a bit of context for my praise: Whenever a gritty and decently-made gangster film or TV series appears, critics tend to praise it for its realism and/or its departure from The Godfather. The Sopranos is more realistic than Goodfellas is more realistic than dePalma's Scarface, etc. It's an old reviewing trope, and one I'm not able to dispense with here. Gomorrah is the most realistic crime film that I have ever seen. Rarely have I been so shocked, moved, impressed, and convinced by a film.

Unlike most films about the mafia, Gomorrah's source material is nonfiction, specifically Roberto Saviano's 2006 book. One tends to trust Saviano's take on the criminal group the Camorra, as the author has been the target of more than one attempted hit since his book's publication; one doesn't want to believe the horrors that Saviano recounts, yet the Camorra have rather compelled our belief.

Gomorrah the film is not a direct adaptation of Gomorrah the book. Rather director Matteo Garrone draws inspiration from the book to present a whole series of stories of the Camorra. The movie's several stories intercut without intertwining; the only constant is the baneful presence of the mob. Not only does Gomorrah fail to provide contrived linkages between characters, it fails to give us a villain. The corrupt Naples shown in Gomorrah lacks a Don Coreleone or Al Capone; even the up-market suit-wearing mobsters seem to take orders from above. Evil is all over.

The opening shot of Gomorrah is a closeup of a middle-aged man in a vertical tanning bed. It took me a few moments to place the blue tanning lights; the salon looks almost unreal. Throughout the film, this sense of unreality somehow coexists with a knowledge that we are watching a sadly plausible depiction of Neapolitan life. The murders, corruption, horror, and cruelty of Gomorrah are far more distressing and disorienting than their more traditionally cinematic counterparts.

Five stories run throughout Gomorrah. The first, and most heartbreaking, is the tale of Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a very young boy who wants to be in a gang. Try as his mother might, Toto will not be drawn from his dream; we get to witness his awful corruption. The second story shows us two foolish teenagers who also want to be mobsters; they steal weapons and drugs from the Camorra and don't quite understand how deadly their heroes and foes are. From their first appearance, we know Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are doomed. One only wonders how unpleasant their inevitable deaths will be. A meek Camorra banker stars in the third and most open-ended story. The fourth story concerns a tailor with ruthless mob connections. The final tale shows us high-level mafia business and a functionary who, God help him, develops a conscience.

Just about all the performers in Gomorrah impressed me, but I was especially taken with the younger actors, upon whom the film relies so much. Abruzzese's Toto breaks our heart but not our suspension of disbelief. Petrone and Macor, as the teenage thugs, make their boastful and foolish characters remarkably sympathetic; their gleeful target shooting spree, their strip club visit, and their terrified meetings with mob enforcers all ring true. The world-weary protagonists of the other stories are fantastic, yet the heart of the film is with the doomed youth.

Whereas most crime films set their various lawbreakers against a glamorous-if-gritty urban backdrop, most of Gomorrah takes place in the bleak and rusty tenements that provide the Camorra with its true power base. When the film moves outside the tenements, it's rarely pleasant: An abandoned quarry may be starkly beautiful, but it's also an ideal dump for toxic waste. There's a very short Venetian sequence; I was almost shocked to remember how beautiful Italy can be.

The opening sequence in the tanning salon ends in a quadruple murder; after that first salvo, we don't see another murder for ninety minutes or so. Gomorrah doesn't shy away from violence, but its great accomplishment lies in its depiction of a sick culture. The scenes of a twelve-year-old selling cocaine are far harder to watch than the occasional gunfights. Gomorrah has more than its share corpses, but it possesses an even greater amount of dead souls.

Gomorrah is a great film about radical evil. Like the last movie I reviewed, it's worthy of its shiny Criterion release. Again like that film, it deserves far more attention than it has received. Watch it and weep.

No comments: