Archive for October, 2008

To Live and Die in Naples: VIFF #2 – Gommorah

Posted in Reviews - Film with tags , , on October 16, 2008 by Nathan Douglas




Directed by Matteo Garrone
With: Italo Renda, Salvatore Abruzzese, Salvatore Ruocco, Simone Sacchettino, Toni Servillo, Vincenzo Altamura, Vincenzo Fabricino

A review by Nathan Douglas

Rating: **1/2 (out of 4)

            Gomorrah is based on a best selling book of the same title that exposes the workings of a brutal crime organization based in Naples, Italy.  The film’s end titles inform us that 4000 people have been murdered over the last 30 years by this particular mob, that their illegal drug dealing market is the largest in the world, and that they are involved in large scale toxic dumping that poisons surrounding neighbourhoods.  The point of these titles, as is the point of the film, is to tell us that these people do Very Bad Things.

            It is a film of many plot threads, all of them fairly interesting, and few of them resolved with any satisfaction.  I think it would qualify as a “hyperlink” film, as explained by Roger Ebert to describe films — such as Syriana and Babel — that focus on several separate characters and situations who turn out to be linked in some unseen and often contrived way.  However, Gommorah’s focus is local, not global, and even then it seems mostly relegated to one gigantic apartment complex.

            We follow the story of Toto, a drifting adolescent who joins one of the crime families in his neighbourhood.  They are, unsurprisingly, brutally violent folk, and not to be played with: the initiation of new recruits involves shooting the flak vest-laden boys in the chest.  We step into the life of Pasquales, a hard-working tailor who wants more out of life and makes a secret business deal with the Chinese seamstresses down the way.  Time is spent watching a shady businessman set up a landfill site for toxic waste; he is shadowed everywhere by a meek, child like man who’s looking to learn this business.  A bookie has dangerous dealings with an angry family.  And, in the thread that the film spends the most time on, we watch two aimless young men careen recklessly from crime to crime, thrill to thrill, hurting lives and stirring up the wrath of the neighbourhood’s overlords.

             Comparisons to other works are inevitable in this kind of film, and Gomorrah wears its influences obviously.  It plays like an Italian version of Fernando Mereille’s City of God, but lacks the tight focus of that masterpiece.  The separate stories take an inordinate amount of time setting up and lurching into motion.  The volume of characters and names are a handful to juggle, and it took me a good hour to know who was who and who was doing what.  Names and faces blur and blend; at one point I thought I was watching the tailor become involved in a plot completely separate from his own.

            As a narrative, Gommorah would work better as a collection of short films, along the lines of Sin City.  The way the story lines are inter-cut leads to an expectation of connection between the disparate threads.  It plays like a “hyperlink movie” without the links.  This is in keeping with the film’s realistic nature; of course in real life people aren’t so perfectly connected by an event or person.  But this is a film that is telling a story, and that carries certain requirements.  This is a basket of stories that are mostly bereft of any satisfaction, closure, or even slight indication of conclusion.  That works fine as realism; as a dramatic film, it falls flat.

            What Gomorrah does, and it does effectively, is record the brutal and harsh reality of life underneath the thumb of these criminal dictators and the wars they wage against each other.  Gomorrah’s portrayal of the crime wars is completely deglamourized by the realistic presentation; there is no intent to entertain as City of God implied with its frenetic styling.  Where Gomorrah stumbles, however, is in its failure to move beyond the violence and drug deals and bloodshed to a hopeful or revealing conclusion.  For all of its manipulative elements and questionable morality, City of God told the story of a young man who escapes the moral and physical nightmares of Rio’s slums; Gomorrah ends on an opposite note, as if sealing the fates of all involved.  There is no call for action, no sense of hope, no impetus to see the situation improved.  Perhaps the real Camorra’s death threats intimidated the filmmakers from going too far.

            Gomorrah does feature one of the more disturbing and powerful portrayals of reckless youth that I’ve seen in a while.  The characters of Marco and Piselli are time bombs waiting to happen.  Garrone does some incredibly nuanced work in his refusal to make the audience sympathize with these characters, but allow it to trickle out of basic God-given compassion.  Make no mistake; these boys are crude brutes in training, well on their way to a life of self-serving cruelty and crime.  Their actions are reprehensible and difficult to watch, and yet it is that same behaviour that screams of their moral vacuum, their utter lack of direction and purpose.  One cannot help but sympathize with their inner state; we have all experienced it at some point even if it doesn’t inspire us to steal and murder.

            But hope is utterly absent from this film.  It has a nihilistic undercurrent subtly expressed through the complete ignorance of religion; characters do not mention the topic, and symbols and objects like crucifixes are hard to find (and in Catholic Italy, no less).  These characters seem to live in the same world as Anton Chighur, living and dying by their own enclosed codes developed over decades of bloodshed.  One of the film’s pivotal scenes involves the moral dilemma of Toto: will he betray his friend’s mother to his gang, or will he hold true to her and die himself?  His decision has tremendous consequences, but the film robs us of the full impact by letting Toto’s story end right there.  It is perhaps the film’s most frustrating quality.

            Right up to the end credits, the focus is muddled and scattered.  The end titles blast a variety of information at the viewer, running down a list of heinous crimes and activities before concluding with the fact that the Camorra have invested in the reconstruction of the World Trade Center.  What is the point of including this?  Is the reconstruction of the WTC tainted by this realization?  Did the Camorra carry out 9/11 to allow for increased investment opportunities?  While some of the facts leave an impression, their intention to close the movie with a Lord of War style punch is undermined by the fact that the last two hours have only shown fragments and glimpses of the behemoth that is the Napolitean underworld.  I received the revelations with a raised eyebrow and questions like “Why didn’t you give us more of a sense of the reality of the Camorra in the actual film?  Why are the big points relegated to the rushed info cards?”

            I digress.  There is value besides to be found here.  The acting is remarkable; many of the characters are from the film’s setting itself and bring a raw authenticity into their performances.  Every actor is well cast and makes an impression of some kind through belligerence (the reckless boys), searching for belonging (Toto), and the sad gaze of a man risking all to cross his overlords (Pasquales).  In addition, the cinematography is excellent; the hand held portions are painless and skillfully filmed.

            Gomorrah has enough of a shell to be a film worth watching.  It captures the feel of its setting immediately and never loses it; its world is brought to life effectively by a well chosen ensemble.  At the heart of it, however, this is a confused and confusing work in search of something meaningful to say, and as such, fails to engage the audience on both a thoughtful and satisfyingly dramatic level.  There are stories in there that need to be told.  I hope that, some day, they get their just and thorough telling.

Content guide: Gomorrah contains strong brutal violence.  We see people being shot with bloody and realistic results, as well as dead bodies in pools of blood.  An extended scene at a strip club has graphic female nudity, including brief full-frontal.  Profanity is kept low, with a couple subtitled f-words and s-words, and some sex-related crudities.  This would undoubtedly be a hard R in the U.S. and an 18A in Canada.


A slice, nay, a pound of life: VIFF # 1 – Ballast

Posted in Reviews - Film on October 3, 2008 by Nathan Douglas


Directed by Lance Hammer
With Michael J. Smith, Sr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs


A review by Nathan Douglas

Rating: **** (out of 4)

Let’s cut to the chase: Ballast is one of the best films of the year.

Immediately after seeing its Canadian premiere at the Vancouver International Film Festival, I wasn’t so sure of its greatness.  The overall impact of the film was still fresh and overwhelming.  Now, with a few days to fully process the film, my admiration for its achievement is greater than ever.

Rarely have I seen a film that fails to remind me that what I see before me is indeed a film, that what unfolds onscreen was made up and acted out by a group of people.  Rarely have I felt so intimately invited into a life that is not my own.  And rarely have I sensed such a connection with a film’s world that it seemed as though the screen is made of air, and that if I dared to reach out and touch it, my hand would pass into the film itself.  If film is a window into other worlds, then Ballast is a first class view.  It is a treasure of unusual quality.

The plot, set in the Mississippi Delta region, is simple but effective.  A man commits suicide, and his family — his brother Lawrence, his ex-wife Marlee, and his troubled son James — deal with the fallout of the deed.  That’s it, in a nutshell.  What ensues is an intimate and poetic look at these characters’ lives as they struggle to get on with their lives.  Deep resentment seethes below the surface; past quarrels are brought to light and scabs pulled open.  At the end, it seems as though little has happened, and I’m reluctant to disagree with that assessment.  In the grand scheme of things, not much happens.  The impacts of the story’s major events remain entirely within the cloistered lives of the main characters.

The realistic nature of Ballast is heightened by the sense that this story is but one of many in the lives of these people, in the history of this particular region.  Past events are alluded to with fierce memory, and take on a life of their own in the viewer’s imagination without the restrictive aid of flashbacks.  The film doesn’t end so much as merely decide to leave these characters alone, dropping out of their lives with the same jarring ease as when they entered the film’s world.  The main arc introduced at the outset — Lawrence’s reaction to his brother’s suicide — is resolved enough to be satisfying, but not with totality; there is still a bit of an edge, of possibility that lingers.  People change and wounds run deeply; there is always the chance that several years down the road, when the camera isn’t present, Lawrence will change his mind.

The purpose of the film according to Hammer (he conducted a Q &A session at the screening I attended) is to capture the feel and presence of the Mississippi Delta region, where Ballast is set, shot, and cast.  In this regard, Hammer achieves total success.  The music-free soundtrack is full of ambience, both man made and natural: distant trains, pouring rain, squeaking doors, flocks of birds.  The viewer is made to soak in the atmosphere; it practically pours (with the constant rain) off of the screen and into one’s lap.

Lance Hammer, who wrote, directed, and edited the film, proves himself to be a sure talent with his first feature.  His editing, influenced somewhat by the Dogme movement through the careful and restrained use of jump cuts, maximizes the emotional impact of his actors’ performances.  Normally I find jump cuts irritating and distracting; here Hammer deploys them to strip away emotional barriers and find these characters at their most broken and desperate. 

The performances are all note perfect, each and every one delivered by non-actors from the Mississippi Delta.  Does the fact that they are from the Delta make their performances less remarkable, since they have much in common with their characters, right down to even being in similar situations and settings?  No, because the film requires a certain performance from each of them to maintain its illusion of reality, and that illusion is flawlessly upheld in their acting.  There is a raw honesty at work in each of the main performers that grounds the film in the real world.  Did Hammer deserve his Best Director award at Sundance, when a good deal of what we see is improvised and drawn out of the actors’ themselves?  Absolutely; he had the good sense to let them find the voices to fit the roles, to make it more organic and less constructed.  Sometimes a director has to step back, stop making things happen, and start letting it happen instead.

There is so much in this film that deserves mentioning.  The anguished, bottomless love that Marlee (Tarra Riggs) has for her child.  The journey of James (JimMyron Ross) who begins the film as an aimless, troubled youth and ends it as a saviour of sorts; Ross’ performance is heart-rending. The quietly soulful and sorrow-drenched presence of Michael J. Smith, Sr., who’s Lawrence stews in his own pain, but still finds the drive to bring kindness into other’s lives.  The way that these family members butt heads, hurt and threaten each other, and eventually grow into a loving unit is satisfying to behold, and worth the emotional investment.

I was not immediately affected by Ballast, or so I thought.  It’s been a week since I’ve seen it, and in that time, the tumble-drying process of post-film analysis has revealed it to be a tiny film of great inner strength.  By focusing on the smallest of worlds, the most intimate of stories, Lance Hammer has crafted a film that can relate to anyone, in any situation, on the basis of family relationships alone.  That it focuses on so specific an area of the United States should not be a deterrent; this film is a universally rich experience, and a bright gem in this fall’s deposit of movies.

Watch the trailer.

Ballast’s IMDB page

Content guide: There’s a good dose of strong language, including semi-frequent use of the f-word and s-word.  A man shoots himself (offscreen) but we see some of his blood splattered on a wall after the fact.  A group of teenagers terrorize and beat up another youth.  There is some brief material involving drugs, but nothing is used onscreen.  The film is currently unrated but would certainly garner an R in the U.S. and a 14A in Canada.