Just when you thought that gangster movies were all played out, Matteo Garrone’s grim and gritty Gomorra comes along and revitalises the stuttering genre. Based on Roberto Saviano’s non fiction best seller, Gomorra loosely chronicles five intersecting stories in modern day Napoli, one of Europe’s most violent cities and home to the notorious Camorra, Italy’s most venerable crime syndicate.
We are so accustomed to seeing mob movies about Italian Americans that it’s fascinating to take a look at the picture on the other side of the pond. Gomorra portrays an Italy so far removed from our picture post card images of beautiful, crumbling grandeur that it’s startling. This is the modern day Italy of chronic unemployment, decaying infrastructure and social stagnation. An Italy where rampant corruption has eaten away at the fabric of society, and where organised crime looms menacingly over every aspect of life. Gomorra takes us inside the Scampia, the notorious Neapolitan suburb where crime and poverty are rampant, and drugs are sold and consumed openly in the streets. It’s an ominous warren of concrete, steel piping and suffocatingly oppressive apartment blocks, a setting every bit as compelling as the Rio de Janeiro favela in City of God.
The most striking aspect about Gomorra when compared with its American made counterparts is the complete lack of glamorisation. The appeal of Hollywood gangster movies, at least in part, is in their fetishisation of the subject matter. The guns, the girls, the sharp clothes, the high living outlaw lifestyle. In Gomorra, we can be under no illusions. The life of a Camorra hood is nasty, squalid and short. It’s a dog eat dog world. Brutal executions are carried out on a whim and without a shred of remorse. Blood feuds are pursued with a senseless and fatal abandon. Everybody looks thuggish, shabby and miserable. It doesn’t even look like anybody is making much money.
Shot in a taut, skilful pseudo cinema verite style, Gomorra takes on a hard hitting documentary feel, as if we were glimpsing real life action from just around the corner. The film is less concerned with creating a tightly structured narrative arc than giving us a rough and ready impression of Napoli’s mean streets. The plot shifts rapidly between five intertwining stories. Don Ciro is a timorous middleman, struggling to escape the Camorra’s endless cycle of violence while distributing money to the families of incarcerated soldiers. Toto is a good natured adolescent delivery boy who gets sucked into the world of crime that dominates his environ. Roberto is a green university graduate who witnesses first hand how the Camorra profiteers in illegal waste dumping. Pasquale is a custom fashion designer who tries to make a little money on the side with Napoli’s Chinese ethnic community, only to run afoul of the Camorra’s competing business interests. Marco and Ciro are two teenage Scarface-worshipping gangster wannabes, who recklessly court the wrath of the local mob boss with their defiant antics.
Gomorra takes on such a broad and meandering scope that it does get rather lost within its own narrative sprawl at times. We are presented with such a number of characters and situations in rapid succession that it’s not quite possible to fully engage with what we’re witnessing on the screen. The events portrayed in Gomorra are fascinating, but the movie holds the viewer at a certain distance. The effect is to drain the film of any kind of sentiment or emotional connection whatsoever. Characters and scenes are introduced and then quickly done away with again. The violence comes in quick, shocking bursts, over before you can get a grip on it. The deaths are so sudden that it knocks the breath out of you at times. Gomorra is a relentless and harrowing experience. It pummels you until you are numb. But it’s not emotionally involving.
And that, I suspect, is precisely the movie’s intent. Gomorra is not so much a drama about individual characters as it is a portrayal of society itself on the edge. It’s about the collapse of a city at the hands of crime, corruption and neglect. It’s not a warning or a portent. The collapse has already taken place. All people can do is to try and come to grips with the consequences. Gomorra is a movie designed to shock the viewer into awareness about the reality of their surroundings.