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




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.


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