Thursday, March 12, 2009

'Gomorrah' is gripping and powerful

The bleakly violent, true-life-based "Gomorrah" isn't your
father's crime saga "Gomorrah
Gomorrah" is a fictionalized adaptation of an Italian crime exposé, but it plays like an angry cinema vérité document of mob life.
Roberto Saviano's riveting bestseller tore the lid off Naples' murderous Camorra crime family, the cousin of Sicily's Cosa Nostra. It was quite a piece of journalism -- unglamorous, viciously unsentimental, and now the author lives under 24-hour police protection. In the hard-boiled film version, professional actors mingle with local kids and actual Camorra thugs, several of whom have since been arrested for crimes like those they perform onscreen. To say the film has an aura of authenticity is understating it. It's gripping, occasionally terrifying, but unlikely to be anyone's favorite movie. Is there such a thing as too real?
Writer/director Matteo Garrone's film records daily life under a brutal crime regime as dispassionately as an X-ray revealing cancer. This is a "slice of life" movie made of raw, impressionistic scenes, not a plot. Garrone throws us into the thick of things without a road map, insisting that we stay alert, connect the dots, work things out for ourselves, sink or swim.
The film opens in a surreal blue glow as a few Camorristi bake at a tanning salon. They're shockingly shot dead in a twist on the old gangster-film barbershop rub-out. The who and why of the scene matters less than the brutally realistic depiction of the murders. Mob wars have been going on for generations; this is just today's tally. "Gomorrah's" body count is high, but the killings never feel routine. Each death comes as a moment of horror with huge emotional impact.
The story is a constant, bloody struggle for money and power set in a prison-like housing project, scrubby public parks and garment industry sweatshops. Here we encounter a half-dozen men trying to get into the mob, survive it or escape it. Marco and Ciro are loose cannons with a taste for chaos who wave guns, shout Al Pacino's lines from "Scarface," and stage impulsive robberies. Don Ciro, a Camorra bag man, doles out payoffs to families of jailed Mafiosi, a once-routine clerking job growing increasingly dangerous. University student Roberto becomes a junior executive, applying his chemical training with a mob toxic-waste subsidiary that is poisoning his hometown. Pasquale, a master tailor for mob-controlled couture clothing factories, risks his life by secretly teaching workers in a Chinese competitor's facility. Toto, a grocery delivery boy from the projects, takes up drug dealing as unselfconsciously as is it were skateboarding. The characters' stories don't intersect, and the episodic narrative allows little character development, but the film evokes a panorama of greed and betrayal.
The Italy we see looks like a Third World viper pit at worst, drab and banal at best. Travel-poster vistas appear only in a brief scene when Roberto accompanies a smoothly tailored Camorra businessman to Venice for a corrupt poison-control deal. "We'll be traveling a lot," the older man says, a tossoff remark that reverberates with menace.
Garrone's world view is dark and disconcerting, but not hopeless. Several characters move away from lives of mob control. Others die, soon to be replaced by eager new opportunists. "Gomorrah" is stark and powerful filmmaking, a welcome alternative to romanticized American mob melodramas.