Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah is one of those movies that is more easily admired as filmmaking than actively liked. This Italian production attempts to show the underbelly of Italy’s Camorra, a criminal organization that operates in and around Naples.
In many ways, Gomorrah, based on Roberto Saviano’s book of the same name, is a refutation of Hollywood’s long-standing glamorization of organized crime in such movies as Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films or Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). Garrone plays into these Hollywood-ized ideals from the onset of his film. Gomorrah’s opening, which involves a pack of gangsters being gunned down at a tanning salon, isn’t all that far removed from Alex Rocco’s Moe Greene being shot in a massage parlor at the end of The Godfather (1972).
But this is where the comparisons and similarities end, since Garrone quickly sets out to humanize his film. Instead of showing the machinations and power plays of the bosses and people in charge, he focuses on characters at the bottom of the food chain, some who have been involved with organized crime for decades and others who are trying to get their foot in the door.
There’s Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), an aging, weary middleman whose job it is to pay off the relatives of gang members; Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), a teen-aged grocery delivery boy who’s attempting to squeeze his way into the Camorra; Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a young assistant whose boss is illegally dumping toxic waste; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor in the business of mass-producing high fashion who finds himself dangerously involved with some Chinese factory owners; and Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two young thugs who have completely bought into the mystique and glamour of the Hollywood gangster persona.
The five stories run parallel with one another and are only occasionally interconnected. They all attempt to show the scope, power, influence and danger that organized crime creates, but on a personal level, shorn of its alluring facade (it’s no coincidence that Marco and Ciro, who go around emulating Tony Montana while holding up coke dealers and pool halls, get the film’s messiest fate).
Garrone throws the viewer into the middle of it all with little exposition and even less explanation. This takes some work from the audience to piece the various plots together, since Garrone’s film is one that is wholly entrenched in subtlety and nuance. What this means is that getting one’s bearings within the film can at times be difficult. The many stories also result in a lack of any real emotional center, since it is difficult to really get to know any of the characters. Though the cast delivers strong performances, the characterizations are generally only sketched in; nothing in the film is spelled out.
This—along with the film’s measured, sometimes languid pacing—lends to the feeling of despair that hangs over many of the characters. Much of this ties into Garrone’s bare-bones approach. The film is shot completely in a “cinema verité” style (think Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler (2008)) that’s never overdone or overstated. For Garrone, the name of the game is restraint: restraint in pace, in action, in making everything obvious for the audience. While this can cause the film to feel like a chore at times, there is compelling human drama buried underneath it all for those with the patience. Not rated.