The new Italian film Gomorrah, directed by Matteo Garrone, is an unflinching and unromantic look at the story of the Camorra — the crime syndicate, operative in Naples and Caserta, that is responsible for more murders than the IRA or Cosa Nostra. Based on the bestselling novel by Roberto Saviano, who remains under police protection, Gomorrah traces the influence of the mob through a number of different lives, careers, and professions. Toward the end of the film, one character says to another, “You’re more dead than alive.” That’s true of everyone in Gomorrah, a film that offers a gritty, documentary-like portrayal of encroaching death — the death of innocence, friendship, and human aspiration.
There is no grandeur to mob life; there is not even the enjoyment of success, despite the vast influence and wealth of the syndicate. Gone is The Godfather’ssense of familial honor and devotion to tradition; gone, too, is the sumptuous luxury of the mob hero in De Palma’s Scarface. Here everything is pared down, stripped of any embellishment. In the opening scenes, the filmmakers follow what appears to be the standard strategy of introducing a number of apparently disparate story lines. But here, unlike elsewhere, the stories do not necessarily intersect. The sheer diversity of the lives testifies to the pervasive corruption of the Camorra. The setting, in dilapidated buildings and empty lots, is equally unvarnished, constituting a sort of concrete jungle.
The film opens with a series of executions in a bizarre setting, a tanning salon whose booths exude neon blue light. From this start, viewers might expect a film saturated in gruesome violence. The action is indeed punctuated by dramatic scenes of violence, but the violence is spread out; it occurs in contexts where it is unpredictable and startling. Tempering the violence and rendering it more powerful is the filmmakers’ attention to the simple humanity of the characters. This is an astonishing achievement, given the absence of anything like a normal social context and the rarity of genuine human interaction. The filmmakers manage to communicate the humanity of characters in small ways: in the foolhardiness of young men aspiring to the mobster stardom of Hollywood movies; in the earnest and innocent facial expressions of a deferential boy; or in the grimaces on the face of a middle-aged man as he realizes how desperate is his plight.
In an early scene, Marco (Marco Macor) and Piselli (Ciro Petrone), whose braggadocio exceeds their courage and their prudence, steal drugs from a Colombian gang and are then chastised by a local mob leader for their impetuous ways. Throughout much of the film, they are more comic than threatening. After they discover a cache of guns, they head to the local beach, where, dressed only in their underwear, they shoot up an abandoned boat as they gesture and moan in imitation of their hero, Scarface. In a scene that humorously illustrates their rash impudence, they become frustrated that they have run out of money in a game store and must cease playing video games. The obvious remedy? Rob the store. As replete with violence and injustice as this world is, it is not without its rules of propriety. The fates of Marco and Piselli illustrate how merciless is the application of punishment for the violation of those rules.
Perhaps the most memorable character in the film is the 13-year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese). Totò is observant and compliant; it never occurs to him even to consider a future other than life in a gang. He first draws the attention of the local mob by finding and returning one of their guns. Eventually, he wins a sort of tryout; at night, in an abandoned lot, one young boy after another puts on a bullet-proof vest and then takes a bullet in the chest. How quickly they get up from the gunshot determines whether they have passed the test of manhood. Once an official member, Totò will have to make a decision that tests his loyalty and demands that bonds of blood and friendship be set aside in favor of devotion to the clan. As one of the adults tells him, “If you’re with us, you don’t have to think.”
The saddest character in the film is the money runner Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), whose assignment is to make payments to the family members of imprisoned mobsters. In a number of scenes we sense his ambivalence about the rather arbitrary rules for payment or non-payment and his growing fear, as the clan with which he is allied begins to lose power, that he is working for the wrong side. Desperate to save his own life, he switches sides, but not without a great cost. In this world, saving one’s own life involves contributing to the deaths of many others; neither justice nor neutrality is possible.
To change sides, Ciro must give up his former allies. In a set-up, he ends up as the only survivor of a brutal attack that leaves many dead. As he leaves the building in which the attack has just taken place, he slowly walks over and around a series of bloody corpses, through a series of rooms and out the door. The camera work here tells the story. Tracking his movements from high above him, it communicates the smallness, the insignificance, of his life, as well as his entrapment in a world where decent intentions have no place and where rapidly shifting loyalties exclude the possibility of security or hope.
–Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.