By Kenji Fujishima
[Gomorrah opens today at Manhattan's IFC Center.]
Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah can be said to slot comfortably into the crime genre, populated as it is by tough gangsters, impressionable young mobster-wannabes, concerned women, guns and strippers. But that wouldn't even come close to describing the experience of watching its multiple mini-dramas unfold. This is a mostly analytical, detached fiction that creates a world inspired by the real-life exploits of the Camorra crime organization (as detailed in Roberto Saviano's book of the same name) and pulls us into a state of close observation as its occasionally harrowing stories unfold. And yet, Garrone, who also co-wrote the film, is skillful enough that he can effectively evoke characters and motivations in the space of a single scene or line of dialogue. Because of that efficiency, while Gomorrah, in its narrative structure, may superficially recall such so-called "hyperlink" films as Traffic, Syriana and Crash, the effect feels considerably less schematic than those films do, to varying degrees.
It must be said straight away that Gomorrah probably is an important film, for the stories it tells, the conclusions it reaches, and the realities it evokes. But aesthetically and narratively speaking, it's fairly unremarkable, and may be a touch too sober in its approach to truly make a memorable impact. Whether that really matters, considering the relevance of its subject, is up to the viewer, really. Certainly, this crime saga refuses to glamorize gangster violence for perniciously "exciting" effect; whatever you may think of its rather Olympian stance, Garrone maintains it with a laudable rigor.
A key image early on in Gomorrah: a wide shot of a building rooftop, in which children are seen playing on a lower level, while above them gangsters are seen patrolling the area. This outwardly simple-looking image is in fact packed with implications, and it sums up the driving force behind the film's multi-stranded narrative: it shows how crime has so completely infiltrated life in this Camorra-controlled part of Italy—in Naples—that it has become a way of life, one that concerned parents simply accept and try to shield their children from, while the young ones try to aspire to Camorra acceptance because that is pretty much all they know.
All of its storylines reflect these circumstances, in different ways. Characters like 13-year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), the two stupid Tony Montana wannabes Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), and the conscience-stricken university graduate Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) work their way into the Camorra universe and decide whether they want to stay on its path or reject its corrupt values altogether. Others, like Pasquale the tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo), Don Ciro the "sottomarino" (Gianfelice Imparato)—he gives payouts to families of prisoners connected to his particular clan—and Franco the toxic-waste-management businessman (Toni Servillo) maneuver around the crime-infested environment, trying to achieve their own success, satisfaction and safety in their own ways.
As these various tales unfold, Garrone consistently emphasizes emotional distance through visual means: long takes, wide shots, and slow pans. Occasionally, he'll intervene with an expressively framed shot: an overhead one late in the film, for instance, that surveys corpse-ridden damage outside of a house as a panicked character saunters away from the scene and perhaps from the Camorra life forever; shots that tellingly blur secondary characters in the background and focus on one important character in the foreground. Mostly, though, Garrone stays out of the way of the stories, which are impressively laid out within the 135-minute running time with utmost economy of means. Garrone, for example, only needs one line of dialogue in a scene between Pasquale and clothing boss Iavarone (Gigio Morra) to suggest, later on, why Pasquale decides to secretly help out the Chinese at nights—publicly expressing frustration over his difficulty in motivating Iavarone's Italian workers, he finds it gratifying to be more or less worshiped by the Chinese factory workers for his expertise. (The money he earns from this side operation certainly doesn't hurt.) In another instance of Garrone's skillful use of cinematic shorthand, one seemingly humdrum scene between Totò and his mother in the opening stages of his story is enough to give us an idea why Totò decides to try to climb the Camorra ladder—it's certainly more exciting for him than delivering groceries.
All of this is quite impressive and, in the moment, reasonably engrossing; there's really not much I can think of that's wrong with the film, all in all. But while Gomorrah undeniably raises consciousness, it isn't devastating; it won't viscerally jolt you toward awareness the way other, more emotionally immediate crime dramas—like, yes, HBO's The Wire (an example that has been used to death, but an unavoidable comparison nonetheless)—almost invariably do. Frankly, Gomorrah often toes the line toward being as coldly efficient as the gangsters it supposedly decries, and Garrone's approach, however admirable, is just too rigidly "objective" to be genuinely moving the way it ought to be, considering the tragic gravity of its overarching subject. It may be a crackerjack piece of reportage, but a wrenching, resonant drama it is not.
Garrone, however, does have one last ace up his sleeve: he sucker-punches us with a final title card that reveals that clans from this ruthless, inhuman Camorra system do indeed have a financial stake in New York's World Trade Center rebuilding project. Camorra blood, it seems, has gotten on our collective hands. Not even merely serviceable journalistic fictions like this one can even hope to measure up to stark reality.
House contributor Kenji Fujishima is a Rutgers University journalism graduate who is currently earning his keep at The Wall Street Journal's Global News Desk in New York while messing around on the side. He maintains—poorly—a blog named My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second. Feel free to check it out.