Early on in Gomorrah, we see a couple of teen-agers acting out a scene from 1983's Scarface. It's an acknowledgement of cinema's fascination with -- and glamorization of -- organized crime, but don't expect any of that vicarious entertainment in Matteo Garrone's gritty drama set amid Italy's most powerful crime syndicate.
Garrone's neorealist film is adapted from Roberto Saviano's best-selling, meticulously detailed expose of the Neapolitan Camorra (or "the System," the more oblique term preferred by members). Its action takes place mostly in and around Naples' sprawling housing estates -- crumbling, crowded concrete structures that more resemble open prisons than one's romantic images of coastal Italy. (Even the nearby beaches are gray and barren.)
Garrone cuts between five stories which mostly run concurrently rather than intertwine, and serve to illustrate the Camorra's breadth. On the fringe is a slick businessman (Toni Servillo), who runs a waste-disposal service with very favorable rates and is mentoring a recent college graduate (Carmine Paternoster). Meanwhile, in a sub-strata of Italy's well-known couture trade, skilled tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) toils in black-market sweatshops producing high-end garments. And Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is a mild-mannered man who delivers weekly pay-outs to relatives of the dead or imprisoned.
Youths are virtually born into the life. Toto (Nicolo Manta), a barely pubescent grocery-delivery boy, is transitioning effortlessly to bloody camorrista. Meanwhile, two cocky teen-age wannabe gangsters (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) draw their cues from cinema's brash Tony Montana rather than the system's hierarchical structure, at their peril.
Note that we follow no top gunmen or charismatic leaders. These are fringe players, replaceable cogs in an ever-churning machine. Gomorrah's characters are far from glamorous: These folks define "ordinary," and they don't even have the camera-ready brio and humor we'd expect from the blandest member of TV's Soprano clan.
Gomorrah is less about the specifics of a singular gang than about an all-encompassing "normal" that is inextricably intertwined with criminality and corruption. As such, the film offers no white hats: no police, church, sainted momma, pining girlfriends or ambitious reporters. Here, everybody is in the muck.
This film will most certainly frustrate fans of traditional gangster movies that offer identifiable heroes and anti-heroes, action sequences and conventional storylines. By Hollywood standards, Gomorrah is slow and occasionally confusing, though the familiar ingredients -- career advancement, gang schisms, betrayal, retribution and execution -- are in the mix. Likewise, Gomorrah defies or upends most gangster-film clichés. For instance, its most visually spectacular shoot-out occurs in the first reel, and its copious bloodletting serves no narrative purpose other than to cast the scene.
(Ironically, Gomorrah's opening screen says "Presented by Martin Scorsese," who, while he's quite the art-film enthusiast, is also arguably responsible for a lot of contemporary cinema's audience-friendly depictions of Italian-American crime syndicates.)
This film more closely resembles a documentary: Garrone shoots with handheld cameras in flat light, using real-life grubby locales and mostly nonprofessional actors, plucked from the streets. (The characters speak in a Neapolitan dialect so thick that the film was subtitled in Italy.)
Similar to some documentaries or non-fiction essays, Gomorrah is detached, unsentimental and less concerned with telling a specific narrative than with conveying the experience found in a unique environment, in this case, a mirror society defined by pervasive crime and corruption. Its vision is an antidote to Hollywood's glossier version: Here, a life of crime is capricious -- alternately dull and stressful, marked by bursts of brutality and mundane pleasures, and ultimately more enervating than invigorating (even with liberal doses of cocaine). The killings in Gomorrah are so matter of fact that the assassins barely get dressed for the job.
Saviano's book was intense and furious, an indictment dense with names-and-numbers detail, yet underscored with incredibly powerful personal vignettes, none of which make the jump to the screen version. While the film is not without its own impact, its take on The System is more coolly observed. There's no overt moralizing, nor does the film offer any solutions or redemption. This inhuman life in this dreadful place just is: As viewers, we drop in, stay for a bit, are shocked -- and fortunately -- drop out. In Italian, with subtitles.
Starts Fri., April 3. Regent Square