By Anthony Lane
The New Yorker
February 23, 2009
The first thing you should know about “Gomorrah” is that no fewer than three members of its cast have been arrested on suspicion of illegal activities. There could be no more unimpeachable testament, surely, to the integrity of Matteo Garrone’s film, which is about organized crime in Naples. Many of the actors were recruited from the area, presumably on the basis that they already knew the ropes, not to mention the Kalashnikovs.
Salvatore Abruzzese as a boy who gets caught up in the Neapolitan Mafia.
You might say that the project smelled of trouble from the start. It began as a nonfiction book by the journalist Roberto Saviano, published in 2006, entitled “Gomorra”; one letter less gave more weight to the pun, yoking the Camorra, or Neapolitan Mafia, with a place of Biblical folly. The book, which opens with frozen Chinese corpses falling out of a shipping container on an Italian quayside—a small matter of human trafficking gone awry—was so detailed, and so incensed, in exposing the venalities of the Mob that Saviano now lives in hiding, under police protection. It was hard to picture his writhing tales of revenge being unpicked and sorted into cinematic sense, but somehow Garrone, working with a clan of screenwriters (including Saviano), has brought order to the sprawl. Even so, the result demands a patient viewing, and maybe more than one; only after a second dose did I get the measure of Garrone’s mastery, and realize how far he has surpassed, not merely honored, the author’s courageous toil.
There are five stories, layered and stuck together, raising the possibility that Garrone modelled the whole thing on a lasagna verde. We get them morsel by morsel, and the brisk dicing between them can catch the viewer unprepared. There is Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), age thirteen, who spies a dropped gun in the street, returns it to local thugs, and, in reward, becomes a mini-mule in the drug trade. There is a pair of teen-agers, Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), fools in love with a gangsterish ideal; “I’m No. 1! Tony Montana!” they cry, acting out their pantomime of “Scarface” in an empty tenement, where a sunken, unused bath echoes not just old Brian De Palma movies but much older tubs, in the balneae of Pompeii, across the bay. There is Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), whose name hints at potency, but who is, in fact, a frightened hireling in a cheap blouson, distributing cash to those families who exist on the say-so of the Camorra. There is Franco (Toni Servillo), the most accomplished gentleman on view, and the one most at ease with evil; aided by a reluctant sidekick, Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), he arranges for the disposal of industrial waste. That sounds like a filmmaker’s convenient symbol, but, if you live in certain parts of southern Italy, the poisoning of the land is right in front of your nose, and under your skin.
Last, and best, of the central figures is Pasquale, played by Salvatore Canta-lupo. (Has any bunch of actors had better names?) Pasquale is a Thurberish drone, keeping his head down but unable to stop lifting up his eyes to resplendent things. He is a tailor, working his fingers off in the service of couture, or, rather, of its speedy, backroom simulacrum. In a bid to earn more, he accepts a secret offer to tutor Chinese immigrants in his delicate art, and what follows is a touching nocturnal farce. Bundled into the trunk of a car, he arrives not at some dripping sweatshop but at a spotless workplace, lined with eager apprentices who applaud his entrance as though he had come to conduct them: “They called me Maestro!” he whispers to his wife, creeping back at dawn. Moments like this achieve what so few American movies seem to be doing just now: they take on a big subject, unwieldy and unglamorous—in this case, the illegal economies that thrive under globalization, and on which we unwittingly feed—and dig out from it a cluster of private dramas that are highly specific (some Italian audiences required subtitles for “Gomorrah,” so parochial is the Neapolitan dialect), and yet which could, you feel, find an answering gleam almost anywhere on the planet. Toward the close, at a truck stop, Pasquale glances at a TV and sees a clip of a radiant Scarlett Johansson parading at a movie première, wearing a dress that he himself ran up at cut price, or perhaps its costlier identical twin; the expression on the tailor’s face is, you might say, his final master class, proving the beauty of ruefulness.
But then “Gomorrah” is a beautiful movie. That may sound perverse, given its welter of drive-by shootings and toxic dumps, but what is most impressive about Garrone is his refusal to let his style be bulldozed by the runaway violence of his subject. This is organized crime. Not for him the panicky, catch-me-if-you-can approach of a film like “City of God”—or, indeed, like “Slumdog Millionaire,” which next to “Gomorrah” seems like an adventure vacation. The mobsters may be trigger-frenzied, but the movie takes constant care, with a kind of appalled wonder, to survey the arenas of their mayhem. Don Ciro does the rounds of Scampia, a northern suburb of Naples, where people live and die in tower blocks that look like ruined ziggurats. Most of the camerawork is handheld, but now and then we pull back for a lofted view: a panorama as unruffled as an Andreas Gursky photograph. Meanwhile, Totò and other kids, in some murky shell of a building, take turns to strap on a makeshift bulletproof vest, get shot in the chest, struggle to their feet, and thereby prove themselves as men-in-waiting; as each vanishes into the gloom to receive his blow, we could be watching a parable of the ancient underworld. Few recent films have been as timely as “Gomorrah,” yet time itself seems to melt around the action; when an ambushed car crashes into an array of mock-classical statuary, you think, Is that the fate of the Roman past? To be cracked into plaster dust by the antics of modern hoodlums?
Garrone’s film is less furious than Saviano’s book, which has the tang of personal nausea, and for that reason, I suspect, it will prove more enduring. (It failed to make the nominations for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards: the usual travesty.) As I watched various Scampians being slain or spared on a whim, I felt borne along not so much by reportage, however well dramatized, as by a fierce meditation on the vagaries of fate—and thus, oddly enough, by the pull of comedy. When Franco, in a cathedral-size quarry, needs a new set of truck drivers to shift his drums of corrosive chemicals, whom does he call? Local children, who perch on cushions to see through the windshield; in a way, they make better mafiosi than the adults, yielding with less caution and complaint to their instinctual urges. There is a terrible numbness to the grownups, spun in the endless cycle of revenge; “We don’t know anything” is the conclusion of one group, which agrees to press ahead with murder, for want of another plan. I’m not sure that, after this movie, I will be able to take quite such unquestioning pleasure in the suave, all-knowing dons of the “Godfather” trilogy, let alone the stylized brutality of “Scarface”; the spoiled earth of “Gomorrah” is the ground zero of Mob cinema, burning away the sleekness and self-congratulation of the genre. The movie ends on a beach, every bit as haunting as those deserted strands unveiled by Antonioni in “The Girlfriends” and “Beyond the Clouds.” We could, in short, be watching the loveliest of art-house films, were it not for the dead bodies being scooped off the sand by a digger. When human beings become flotsam, all that art can do is stand and look.