It started in Naples: Gomorrah ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2009)

Beach blanket fungoo: Gomorrah.

Here’s the paradox. Gomorrah is one of the most mundane films ever made about organized crime; yet it may be the most truthful onscreen portrayal you will ever see. Eschewing the romanticized glamour of the Warner Brothers’ gangsters, the operatic pulp of Coppola’s mob scene, or the “wise guy” poetry of Scorsese’s mean streets, director Matteo Garonne opts for a neo-realist portrait of opportunism and brutality at its basest level. Modern Naples is the setting; so if you’re looking for the Sopranos…fuhgetaboutit.

The network narrative profiles several Neapolitan characters involved with the criminal organization known as the Camorra (not to be confused with the Sicilian Mafia). There’s a young boy, recruited as a drug runner. He lines up outside of an abandoned building along with other young candidates, who each await their “turn” to audition for a job by donning a Kevlar vest and  taking a bullet in the chest at point blank range. Those who dust themselves off are congratulated for “becoming a man” and then hired.

There’s a tailor, who works both sides against the middle, designing for a mob-controlled clothing factory by day and moonlighting as a consultant for a Chinese-run black market sweat shop. There’s a mob-backed contractor, who makes backroom deals with manufacturing companies to dump toxic waste. And we follow a pair of cocky teenage pals who worship the Al Pacino version of Scarface, and fancy themselves as real up-and-comers in the local underworld.

Six writers are credited (including director Garonne and journalist Roberto Saviano, author of the source book) which suggests  too many cooks peppering the ragu. I have to admit, I had to re-watch the first half of the film almost immediately, because I was having some difficulty differentiating between some of the characters; I also found it a bit murky as to who was “warring” with who, and why.

Perhaps that is the point of the film-that there is no point to the violence; no one ever  “wins” (an eye for an eye eventually makes the whole world blind). I think that the matter-of-fact depiction of violence and avarice was being posited by the filmmakers as a systemic issue, which has been enabled for far too long by the relative complacency of the local populace.

The director post-scripts with a list of statistics that enumerates the body count left in the wake of Camorra’s activities over the years; not just from bombings and shootings, but “collateral damage”- like public health hazards from the illegal toxic waste disposal.

Many are comparing this film with City of God, the popular 2002 Brazilian film about the modern crime-ridden slums of Rio de Janeiro. While it does share a similar milieu, I found it to be a much closer cousin to The Wire (the criminal cultures of the port cities of Baltimore and Naples display many surprising parallels).

Like that HBO crime drama, Gomorrah doesn’t prescribe antidotes to the societal ills that it observes, nor does it try to cloak its narrative in a morality play. It simply presents a cinema verite-style observation on The Way Things Are-the quiet desperation of everyday drudgery, punctuated by  moments of adrenaline-pumping excitement and/or heart-stopping fear (mobsters take their pants off the same way as anyone else). If you prefer tidy endings, be forewarned; for realists, this may be an offer you can’t refuse.

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