The crime movie genre is one of those genre nomenclatures that doesn’t quite make sense. The more obvious example of this mistaken identity is the western, a genre that seems to be defined by location rather than by rules, styles or themes. Who is going to argue that The Proposition is not a western? And why do I keep finding Hud buried amongst the westerns in video shops – is it because of the hats? Cause that’s not something I want to be defining a genre by.
The crime genre is similar, in that “crime” refers rather to the focus and setting than to the themes – crime films can have elements of comedy, action and thriller. But by and large the best gangster movies are studies of men, generally great men, their rises and their falls. Gomorrah, however, takes a far different approach, viewing the world of organised crime from the very bottom. And it is likely to be counted amongst the great gangster movies.
The film, set in the world of the Neapolitan Camorra, views its utterly alien location with a naturalistic, almost documentary eye. Scenes move between the Italian countryside, which contrary to traditional depictions appears scorched and wild, and a hellish accommodation complex, a series of grey cement slabs that resemble what they represent; a massive staircase to nowhere.
Into this world of modernised and organised biblical sin, director Matteo Garrone places five only slightly interlocking stories that represent different elements of the grunt work that make a crime syndicate. The film is based on the book by journalist and co-writer Roberto Saviano, whose writings have earned him a bounty on his head. But even without this information Gomorrah’s sheer style and courage leave you undoubting that these fictional tales are accurate portrayals of real people and real situations.
The stories are as follows: a nervous moneyman begins to fear he is over his head as the clan goes to war around him; a tailor who produces counterfeit high fashion attempts to make extra cash by training the Chinese immigrant workers of a competitor; a business graduate believes he is finally successful until he becomes disillusioned with the recklessness of his toxic waste-burying boss; a 13-year-old becomes indoctrinated into the Comorra but quickly learns that honour and betrayal go hand-in-hand; two teenaged gangster wannabes do their bests to become respected Mafiosi but haven’t the smarts to pull it off.
Together the stories paint a broad picture of the damage the Comorra does. But there are no Don Corleones, no Tony Montanas. These are the soldiers and their victims, those who are not the focus of your average crime drama. Austin Powers joked that no-one cares for the family of a henchman, and indeed it is easy to forget that there are real minds behind the thugs, heavies and moneymen of the world of organised crime. Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) finally becomes a member of the clan only to find a friend but family rival must become his first victim. Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) begins to find the unknown world of the Chinese fascinating while hiding the fatal secret of his moonlighting. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) find that guns and robberies do not help them get prestige and women, only the wrong end of a gun barrel.
Of all the notes Gomorrah hits however, one strikes a most noteworthy chord. There is something utterly pretentious about the gangster existence; pathetic, even pitiable. The film’s prelude features a hit at a tanning salon, where a group of Mafiosi beatify themselves as best they can, unaware that the undertakers will take care of the rest. Young Toto, when he is not working for his mother or being hazed by gang members (being shot at point blank range while wearing armour, no less), is seen plucking his eyebrows in the mirror, aspiring to an ideal that involves none of the blood and none of the guilt that will follow. Worst of all, poseurs Marco and Ciro re-enact scenes from Brian De Palma’s Scarface – the position of crime boss has been given a legendary status amongst these hopeless youths.
But there is redemption. Pasquale finds beauty in the work that nearly kills him. Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) leaves his boss, who insults him by saying he should “go make pizza”, though Roberto has realised that a status-less job is better than one that would risk losing your very soul.
Gomorrah is a film that utterly refuses to compromise, and deserves all of the accolades that are still coming its way. It features a style of realism that is discomforting in how utterly real it feels, sometimes too much so – the gloss of Bertolucci and Tornatore has been peeled away to reveal a very different Italy to the one we had previously come to know.
It is often shocking, regularly thought-provoking and occasionally shows a strong sense of humour, most memorably when Marco and Ciro find the firearms they have stolen double as grenade-launchers.
The film’s coda places the effects of these localised events on a global scale, but what came before has already been evidence enough that the damage being done is simply too great. Gomorrah tells stories that deserve to be heard.