August 6, 2012

International Gangsters Marathon: Gomorrah (2008)


Roberto Saviano's book Gamorrah was released in 2006 and drew tremendous attention for its unblemished look at the Camorra crime organization. This powerful group resembles the Mafia in Italy and has wielded considerable influence during the past few centuries. In recent years, they've been involved in disposing of garbage and toxic waste, and it's safe to say they're not using environmentally friendly methods. Saviano's book was adapted into a movie in 2008 that offers scant hope for a positive solution. I knew little about this situation before seeing this film, and I'm now curious to learn more.

What's this story about?
In the Italian city of Naples, there are five interlocking stories of people connected to aspects of the criminal world. The figures include money guy Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), young gang initiate Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), waste manager Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), and wannabe teen gangsters Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone). Although most are loosely connected to the Camorra, each person is affected by the ways the organization impacts the community. The culture of strikes and retaliation continues and has few signs of ending. Every violent act repeats the pattern and makes it nearly impossible for the local residents. It's an out-of-control society, and the authorities have little interest in trying to solve the problems.


What are the key themes of this film?
Director Matteo Garrone (The Embalmer) is trying to do more than provide engaging drama. The text at the end makes it clear that he's shedding light on the Camorra. Well before that point, the story illuminates the various parties involved with keeping the organization afloat. Young recruits like Totò are initiated brutally with a gunshot while wearing a bulletproof vest. A friend is gunned down right next to him at an innocent social gathering. Even 13-year-olds have a limited shelf life in this world. Beyond the gangster elements, another intriguing arc involves the waste removal from Roberto and his boss Franco (Toni Servillo). It's a legitimate business on the surface, but there's no interest in protecting the environment. Roberto seems like he's doing well, but he's quickly realizing it's equally corrupt as the gangs. Franco justifies his behavior by saying it helps the community, but he cares little for the negative effects on the workers and the atmosphere.


Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
The story focuses on many characters, so we only learn the basics. That said, they are believable and don't fall into general types. A good example is Pasquale, who's providing his tailoring expertise to a Chinese company on the side. It seems like a solid job because of the money, but it puts him at risk with the Camorra. Salvatore Cantalupo is excellent in limited screen time and shows why Pasquale would take the chance. His confrontation with his mentor shows there's more behind the decision than just a quick dollar. In a similar way, Don Ciro takes money to families of imprisoned gang members. It's a thankless job for the quiet guy, who's hounded for not providing more.While he isn't threatening anyone, Don gets immersed in the conflict and must act or face the consequences.


How extensive is the scenery chewing from the hoodlums? 
There are hoodlums doing some posturing, but they're playing at being gangsters. After they steal a cache of weapons, Marco and Ciro waste time firing the high-powered guns into the water. They're mimicking the scenery-chewing thugs from movies, but it's just a sad display. The hardened older guys lack that same exuberance. They discuss killings with the nonchalance of employees working in less-violent fields. Most of the energetic guys are youngsters who don't understand the realities of working on the Camorra. They're being driven by passion and greed and fail to recognize their unlikely odds of survival. Garrone does an excellent job depicting the various factions that combine to create this bleak society. Even the livelier moments are tinged with despair for the future.


What are some of the most memorable scenes?
The story opens with the striking image of a gangster chilling in a tanning salon. The guys are having fun and feel like they can't be stopped. The world is theirs, to paraphrase the famous Scarface line. They seem like the protagonists, but they're immediately gunned down by rival killers. This point is made clearer in subsequent scenes when Marco and Ciro directly reference the DePalma epic and Tony Montana. It's a remarkable opening sequence that pulls you right into this world. You let down your guard at your own peril in this sphere. The clans will battle over any infraction, and this is just the beginning. A later murder shows the point-blank shooting of a woman because her son joined a different faction. It's a trivial reason but isn't sillier than many of the other actions.


How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
Shot with a handheld style, Gomorrah is a gripping film that reflects a clear vision from Garrone. He uses extended shots that track through the city and give us an intimate outlook. The shifting perspectives can be tricky at the start, but it also matches his approach. Garrone isn't trying to present one story in complete detail. Instead, he's trying to paint a broad picture of a community disintegrating. The residents are experiencing hell on Earth, and there's little they can do to change the pattern. It feels limiting to even call this a gangster film. That label brings limited expectations to a stunning movie that's doing a lot more than depicting the rise and fall of a few hoodlums.

Next week, I'll venture over to Hong Kong and check out Johnnie To's Exiled.

12 comments:

  1. I LOVE Gomorrah, and I really enjoyed your review of it. Great description of the first scene, I was watching that thinking, "Well, okay, these guys are living it up," then BOOM. I love how, really, this movie only has one act. We're just thrown in this life with no exposition and forced to catch up. There's no grand catharsis or moment of clarity - some live, some die, and the tractor rides off into the sunset.

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    1. Alex, it's interesting because I wasn't that excited to watch it compared to some of the others in this marathon. It's my favorite of the three I've written about so far, which is saying a lot. That final scene with the tractor is so bleak, but it's not a surprise. Like you say, this is the world that's being presented. It's a great film.

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  2. Great review! I somehow never got around to this, but it looks fantastic. I'll have to check it out.

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    1. Thanks Josh! I'd highly recommend it and was surprised by how much I liked it.

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  3. I don't know that I can say I "liked" this film, but I thought it was fantastic from start to finish. I was completely surprised by the violence at every turn, which to my mind made the film far more realistic.

    If nothing else, I respect this film's brutality. This is no glamorous depiction of a life of crime, but a sobering reality that such a life is so cheap as to be without value.

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    1. I agree, Steve. It introduces us to characters and then shows that they're just cogs in a big machine. Even the guys who are just trying to get by have little chance to succeed.

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  4. I'll be watching this soon for my 2009 revisit. I can't wait.

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    1. Nice! It's one of the big discoveries for me this year so far.

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    2. I loved the cinematography. I agree completely with you on that. I also loved the opening scene. But I didn't love much else. I liked the film, but didn't love it. There's no big flaw, only some weaknesses for me.

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    3. I read your post and can see your points about not grabbing onto the characters. Garrone takes a specific approach to the environment and makes that as much of a character as the specific people. I'm glad you checked it out, and it's good to hear that you liked it, even if your reaction was a bit more reserved than mine.

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  5. I loved this film! I have actually being itching to re-watch it. Of all the characters in the film, I found Marco and Ciro to be both annoying and fascinating all at the same time...which is not easy to achieve.

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    1. Courtney, I definitely agree about Marco and Ciro. They're grating at times because they're so clueless, but it's intriguing to watch them stumble around. The end works and affects you even though they've been irritating at times. I'm glad you're also a fan.

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