By its very title and subject, Gomorrah promises crushingly obvious intimations of Biblical barbarity. In execution, however, Matteo Garrone's account of the multiple levels of organized crime in modern-day Naples works the opposite way, sidestepping grandiose gestures and statements in favor of a grimly matter-of-fact chronicle of how pervasive the Mafia influence has become. Paring down Roberto Saviano's densely researched bestseller to a quintet of parallel character strands, Garrone composes a chilling mosaic that, with an analyst's calm and a hitman's eye for impersonal brutality, lays out the social, political and economic reverberations of the Camorra criminal families. The characters' struggle across the age spectrum reflects the many stages of the organizations' reign of terror, from 13-year-old Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) eagerly starting out at the bottom of the Camorra ladder to Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a weary tailor who bridges high fashion and lowlifes. In between them, there's Tony Montana-obsessed knuckleheads Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) running around with machine guns, money-runner Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) pondering the cost of fidelity as signs of gang war begin to brew, and toxic-waste entrepreneur Franco (Toni Servillo) corrupting his fresh-out-of-the-university assistant's worldview.
Garrone's gangster-as-capitalist view never softens its focus a la Traffic or turn its executions into exploitative set pieces a la City of God; lean and coolly distanced despite the plot's escalating violence, the film at its most fierce feels like a continuation of Francesco Rosi's caustic exposés like Lucky Luciano and Illustrious Corpses. Expertly controlled for most of its sprawling running time, the film's points about life under ruthless criminal rule grow inexorably redundant, particularly as, in an attempt at connecting the dots in Garrone's massive canvas, it gives in to the stock mobster shocks it had rigorously eschewed. Still, few mafia films so thoroughly depict an order in which crime is to its people not an underworld but, simply and bleakly, the world itself.