Mario Spada / IFC Films / Film Society of Lincoln Center

Mario Spada / IFC Films / Film Society of Lincoln Center

When one hears the words “Italian mafia movie,” the first thing to come to mind likely would not be Gomorrah’s shocking opening scene, which depicts a group of nameless mobsters who meet their fates while bronzing their bodies and getting manicures in a tanning salon. But Matteo Garrone’s film, winner of the Grand Prix at Festival de Cannes in May, is far more than an exercise in genre deconstruction; it is a strikingly visceral account of a violent culture in southern Italy that is far too real and contemporary to be given the mythical, romantic treatment of cinematic gangsterism painted as a lifestyle worthy of envy.

Based on the book by Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah’s multi-narrative approach juggles several stories of organized crime in which its characters are connected only by the various machinations of Naples’ far-reaching crime culture, the Comorra, whose activities include drug trafficking, semiautomatic gun smuggling, and even a hand in the fashion industry. The more memorable characters in the film include a pair of fearless, instinct-driven teens who rob arcades and steal guns and drugs in hope of becoming self-sustaining gangsters; a young kid whose admiration of the Comorra culture all-too-quickly entrenches him in a lifestyle of backstabbing and compromise; a tailor raised by the mafia who turns his back on his allies in order to make a little bit more money teaching a Chinese sweatshop how to make sustainable clothing; and an aging money launderer who is tired of all of the war and just wants out.

Unlike the conventional views of gangsterism perpetuated by the genre, Gomorrah’s take on organized crime hardly displays any honorable codes of values or conduct or even family ties that define codes of loyalty. Crime is presented as something that is inevitably adopted when one is young in a place were no alternatives exist, and nobody is innocent. This description may make Gomorrah sound like Italy’s answer to Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002), but this film avoids the interfering stylization of its Brazilian counterpart, providing instead a matter-of-fact approach. While the teenagers in this film may quote Tony Montana as a role model, Garrone’s vision can never be accused of glorifying the lifestyle or stylizing its violence. Gomorrah’s violence leaves as quickly as it arrives, never belabored or prolonged, and it’s always shocking and unexpected.

While Garrone’s deliberately realist, immediate, and objective style allows the audience to be entrenched in the unforgiving, harsh reality of not-so-organized crime, it also potentially alienates us from its characters. Garrone invites the audience to join him in an observation of Comorra culture, and he thankfully keeps any judgment at bay, but he thereby also prevents any immersion in the psychology of the culture’s inhabitants. Save for the tailor (who commits the unforgivable sin of involving himself with another culture) and the child, none of Gomorrah’s characters are sympathetic, and many of them seem nameless and indistinct.

Garrone seeks not to explore the roots of why a culture exists, how such violence can be stopped, or even why a life of crime is so attractive to the young—his modest goal is simply to make this culture apparent to the rest of the world. The result is shocking, revealing, and raises many questions, but its lack of depth may unfortunately prevent much of what’s been seen to resonate long after you’ve left the theater.

Still, Garrone’s vision is undoubtedly striking, and while viewers may not come away with a broad understanding of organized violence in southern Italy, they will inevitably leave with some of the film’s more memorable sequences in mind. I left the theater remembering two things. One is a sequence where the two central teens shoot semiautomatic weapons in their underwear on a beach. This has thus far become, via promotion, the singular image defining the film. The other is an initiation sequence, where young boys test their manhood by wearing a bulletproof vest and getting shot by a pistol from only a few feet away. This scene illustrates so well the contrived definition of manhood that causes one to admire such a lifestyle in the first place, while also displaying immediately the inevitability of its repercussions.

© 2008 Landon Palmer. All rights reserved.

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