Matteo Garrone’s intelligent adaptation is an important statement for contemporary Italian cinema.
Gomorrah is not a Mafia film, and for good reason. What can possibly be left to say about the Mob that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, from high-style violence to lowbrow laughs? After The Sopranos, the gangster has been psychologically wrung dry, deconstructed, dismantled; the slow, silent fade-to-black that announced Big T’s departure an ending in more ways than one.
And yet… If Gomorrah isn’t a Mafia film, what is it? Because here are crime families, corruption and blood-soaked feuds; all the trimmings of a tired genre. But this is Naples, not New York. This is the story of the Camorra, and the story of the Camorra is a snapshot of Italy.
Gomorrah is the telling of an untold history – a social evolution of Italy written in charge sheets and prison records, but one whose tale shadows the classroom textbooks. In a country where criminal emperors wield more power than politicians, these histories – official and unofficial – sit side-by-side, two chapters of the same story.
What is Gomorrah? A statement, perhaps. But of despair or defiance?
The Camorra is a criminal network in the Campanula region of southern Italy whose roots are said to date back to the sixteenth century. It’s only in the last 30 years that they’ve stepped out of the shadow of the Sicilian Mafia, thanks largely to a surge in violence that has seen them murder over 4,000 people, and the staggering wealth that they’ve accumulated along the way.
Details began to emerge during the decade-long 'Spartacus' trial that saw 16 ringleaders sentenced to over 700 years. It was a major breakthrough for investigators, proving what they’d long feared: the Camorra wasn’t just a violent drug gang, it was a twenty-first century criminal conglomerate whose economic interests spanned everything from construction and tourism to textiles and banking. Its combined turnover was estimated at £150 billon a year, making it one of Italy’s most profitable businesses.
Five people were murdered during the course of the Spartacus trial, and threats were made against a sixth: Roberto Saviano. Saviano was a native of Casal di Principe who grew up in a climate of fear. He saw his first murder victim at 13, and at 18 his father, a doctor, was badly beaten for saving the life of a man the Camorra had tried to kill.
In his twenties he worked as an assistant photographer at Mob weddings, getting to know 'The System', as the Camorra call their work. In 2006 he published Gomorrah, an explosive account of the emotional and physical devastation that organised crime had inflicted on Naples, based on the real stories he uncovered. He now lives under police protection.
Clearly, any adaptation of Gomorrah bears a huge weight of responsibility, but director Matteo Garrone has handled the pressure. "The raw material I had to work with when shooting was so visually powerful that I merely filmed it in as straightforward a way as possible," he has said. "As if I were a passer-by who happened to find myself there by chance."
'There' is the province of Caserta, a place of crumbling tenements edged with the rust and ruin of decay, where every aspect of people’s lives is controlled by the Camorra, from the money in their pocket to the roof over their head.
In amongst the drug pushers, housewives and urban poor, Garrone focuses on five disparate stories, each of which tells its own tale of life’s cold reality. Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is the ageing accountant responsible for running money in the ghetto for the wives and parents of jailed Camorristi. Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a 13-year-old boy infatuated with the lifestyle of his older friends.
Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is a university graduate looking for work, happy to take a job in a waste management company. Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is a dressmaker, a maestro, seduced by the respect of the Mob’s Chinese rivals; while Marco and Ciro (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) are loose cannons, little more than kids still playing Scarface, but with dreams of carving out their own piece of the action.
Few of these stories cross paths directly, but taken together they offer a bleak, if compelling, portrait of an entire community sucked into The System, and each is a tragic lesson in itself.
Don Ciro may be a resolutely non-violent man, but he is a footsoldier in a war, and though he has no wish to fight he will be forced to compromise his own sense of himself – his friendships and decency – if he wants to survive.
Marco and Ciro are the dark heart of southern Italy, where the cycle of brutality breeds a cruel kind of nihilism. They steal guns from the mob, toting M16s, quoting Tony Montana. They laugh and joke, but with an edge of desperation. They’re all animal instinct; grappling clumsily with a pair of strippers after a score, with no thought for thinking, just touch and taste – the instant pleasures that can be caught on the fly because there’s a clock tick-tick-ticking somewhere and soon their time will run out.
Roberto, by contrast, is the corporate face of criminal violence – all sharp suits and sunglasses, and yet even more dangerous than the punks with guns. The Camorra’s control of toxic waste disposal has wreaked havoc in Italy, silently murdering generations of villagers. And yet Roberto offers something all-too rare in Gomorrah: redemption for a troubled conscience. But standing shrunken against a vast quarry, in which young boys drive lorries filled with industrial slime, Roberto is put in perspective. He is nobody. His loss of faith changes nothing in the face of this engine of chaos.
It’s the dressmaker, Pasquale, who offers perhaps the most poignant example of the Camorra’s destructive nature. The tailor is punished for his ‘betrayal’ of the Mob’s business interests – his new friends murdered, his profession taken away – but when he sees one of his creations on the television, he smiles. It speaks of vindication, of a glimmer of happiness and even hope.
But if Pasquale offers the film’s most human moment, Totò is its grim tragedy. In The Washington Post, Roberto Saviano wrote of the Spartacus trial, "Night may have ended in southern Italy, but morning is not yet here." Totò is that uncertain future, a child of violence, inducted and indoctrinated in a brilliant scene set deep in the Hellish bowels of the ghetto where each new recruit is strapped to a bullet-proof vest and shot.
"Now you are a man," he is told, but Totò is still just a boy with choices ahead of him. That gunshot only opens the door to manhood – to the point where he must take responsibility for himself. It is not until later, until he makes a heart-breaking decision, that the door is slammed shut behind him.
Garrone and Saviano’s message is one of complicity. The greatest violence committed by the Camorra isn’t on the body, but on the soul. The cycle of brutality suffuses the community. There is no escape and no excuse: everyone is implicated somewhere along the line. This is a psychic violence inflicted on everybody, all the time – the cruel knowledge that you can’t absolve yourself of blame because the Camorra is your society. The System is everywhere, and everything is The System.
This message rings out in the tone and texture of the film, expertly assembled by Garrone and his editor, Marco Spoletini. While explicit action only occurs in sporadic, unglamorous stabs of noise and confusion, an air of ugly, imminent violence permeates the frame.
Garrone uses the landscape to his advantage, his shots dark, tight and claustrophobic, or opening up in subtle and subversive ways – here the beach becomes a place of death, and the only open skies are bruised and grey. Roberto’s ‘defection’ under brooding purple clouds is a master class of understated menace: always the ticking, never the bomb.
If there’s a flaw in Garrone’s style, it’s that he’s almost too focussed on keeping it real. So committed is he to avoiding the clichés of the genre that the minutiae come close to overpowering Gommorah’s narrative drive. We’re pitched in to these personal stories with very little sense of the big picture, of who these people are or why they matter. In its own way, this is sophisticated filmmaking: these people are nobodies caught in a pointless, endless war; it doesn’t matter which war, or who started it, or even who’s fighting it, what matters is that it exists and is a cause of suffering.
Suffering is all we need to know – or all we should need to know – to care. Fine theory, but it still makes parts of the film confusing to a non-Italian audience, with all its talk of clans and business and secession, but no real time taken to explain which clan, or what business, or secession from where.
Perhaps that, in effect, simply puts us in the same shoes as the film’s protagonists: confused and manipulated, only able to see a tiny piece of a picture whose complexity is beyond our grasp. Caught in the middle of a violent upheaval, they and we can only wonder where the next bullet will come from, and who, this time, will be the victim.
A seminal book in a country awakening to its violent past and present gets a serious cinematic treatment.
An uncompromising adaptation that reflects the intelligence and courage of its source material.
Gomorrah carves out a place for itself in an overcrowded genre.