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Further Festival Frolics

So the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival has been over a week now but it’s worth recapping what I saw in the days following my marathon Sunday viewing.

On the Tuesday of the Festival I caught the entertaining oddity Were the World Mine. A camp indulging in gay teen wish fulfilment, the film combines traditional teen angst drama with musical fantasy to create a bizarre yet recognisable fusion.

Loosely autobiographical, according to director Tom Gustafson, the story follows a troubled gay teen dealing with his attractions at an all-boys school in a somewhat conservative American town.

First escaping into daydreams about his rugby star crush – the film’s portrayal of a daydreaming adolescent is commendable – framed in the context of a school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the film takes an interesting and utterly unexpected turn when the youth, Timothy, successfully fabricates the love potion from that play, and uses it to help the world see through his eyes, by literally making the whole town gay.

It’s a little juvenile, but it’ all performed with a nod and a wink, and it pretty much works fine as an indie comedy. Whether it truly has anything to say about gender relations and sexuality is debatable, but through the use of dance and music, all lyrics by Bill Shakespeare, it certainly sets itself apart from any similar films.

Certainly it’s the freshest the love potion film has seemed in decades.

Right after that, though thankfully in the same cinema, was a gala presentation of the sensational Il Divo. A political biopic like none I have ever seen, the latter days of the rule of Giulio Andreotti are played out in manner that could be called part drama, part gangster movie, part music video.

Indeed, the impressive young director Paolo Sorrentino said in discussion after the film that his intention had been to create a “rock opera” about Andreotti, and it very much comes off that way.

Surreal flourishes permeate the otherwise sensible walls of power in Rome: a cat with David Bowie eyes engages Andreotti in a staring contest; blood red subtitles introducing characters shift within the frame to contest with camera movements; even the music from the soundtrack is utterly eccentric.

As Andreotti, Tony Servillo creates a caricature that feels too strange to not be real. There is an inhumanity to him, as he rings his hands, hunched like Count Orlok, and yet when we see his relationship with his wife, and when we see the pressure that is on him and the sleeplessness power creates for him, we realise that it is far more than a caricature that is on display here.

In perhaps the film’s most startling image (and there are several in contention), Andreotti walks off his sleeplessness up and down a corridor for what feels like minutes on end, the camera swinging to keep up with movement as he darts in and out of focus. There is a potential master behind this camera, but like many of the masters he is clearly really having fun.

A complete antithesis to the realism of Italy’s other Cannes success last year, Gomorrah, Il Divo similarly asks questions without answers and leaves an incredible amount of ambiguity, while pointing towards Andreotti’s guilt.

It’s a bizarre experience, but one that you can’t shake off afterwards as you still picture Andreotti shuffling along the midnight streets of Rome with an armed cavalcade of police at his side.

The next evening was the Irish premiere of Religulous, another feature long out in the US, which I had been waiting for for some time. I’ve never made much secret of my staunch atheism so this was always going to be a case of preaching to the choir (if you’ll forgive that specious turn of phrase in this instance).

I’d be lying so if I did not admit I was slightly disappointed. The film took what I consider to be too flippant an approach in its observances of the faults in adhering to outdated religious doctrines. To finally turn around as Bill Maher does in the final reel and put forth what amounts to a call to arms for atheists and agnostics is quite a step that one feels a whole TV series would have required rather than 100 minutes of witty analysis.

In fairness, as comedy goes, making fun of religion is like shooting Jesus fish in a barrel.

But that’s not to say it isn’t funny, it has some great moments, mostly supplied by witty subtitles and bizarre interviewees. The discussion with an eccentric priest outside the Vatican contains many of the highlights, as does the interview with an Arkansas senator.

But good fun and occasional insights do not make it the must-see event it really should have been.

The surface has been scratched, but who will start hacking away now that Bill Maher and Larry Charles have retreated?

An exhausting dash from Cineworld to the Screen (again) made me very on time for a delayed screening of Tokyo!, coupled with Il Divo my highlight of he Festival.

This three-pronged assault on logic through surrealism and whimsy is one of the best collections of short films I have ever come across.

The first film, Interior Design, has left me forgiving the bitter taste Michel Gondry left in my mouth with the dire Be Kind Rewind. It is an expertly crafted story that begins as a generic but pleasant “country girl in the big city” story before mutating into a Kafkaesque nightmare with a happy ending.

The story of Hiroko’s (Ayako Fujitani) struggle to feel useful and her despair in realising the truth about herself is captured wonderfully through the film’s pacing and Fujitami’s introverted performance. When all surrealist hell breaks loose, Gondry uses his trademark “wait, how did he do that?” special effects so brilliantly that it sweeps you up and takes you away with it. The ending hovers in a void between meaningless and insightful that all you can do is smile.

Merde is the weakest of the three vignettes, but that is hardly a criticism. Directed by little-known French filmmaker Leos Carax, it tells the story of a horrible French troll (Denis Lavant) who lives beneath Tokyo, venturing forth only to terrorise through sheer unpleasantness.

The first elongated take following Merde along his path of terror, on what feels like a never-ending or endlessly repeating shopping street – stealing money (to eat) and licking helpless passersby.

When eventually captured and put on trial, his lawyer appears to also be a similar troll creature, albeit one who has become a respected member of French society. Pythonesque comedy ensues as the two communicate through gibberish; it nearly gets old but always remains funny, even through the lengthy courtroom scene, which is kept fresh by the use of – for no discernable reason – 24-style split screens.

It’s all very silly but very fun, with brilliant fake news coverage adding to the nonsense. The final gag is truly inspired, although one fears Carax could follow up on the offer it contains.

Finally, Shaking Tokyo is Tokyo!’s triumph. From Bong Joon-ho, the Korean genius behind the genre-bending The Host, it tells the story of a hikikomori, a sort of homebound hermit, who only orders in food and refuses to make eye contact with visitors, and designs his dwelling with used-up toilet rolls and empty pizza boxes.

After a chance encounter with a beautiful woman and a subsequent earthquake, the nameless shut-in begins to rethink his life, and the story ventures from comedy into the worlds of romance and science fiction.

It is an utter delight with more than enough quirky gags to keep it constantly fresh, as well as one of the most charming voiceovers in recent memory.

On Thursday night I took a friend to see Two For the Road, playing as one of the many classic films on show. As an extra treat it was on at the Lighthouse cinema, which I had not been to since its reopening last year. It must be the comfiest and most aesthetically pleasing cinema in Dublin.

The film was more of a treat than I expected, detailing the romantic ups and downs of an English couple over 12 years as their various holidays in France criss-cross one another in time.

The back-and-forthing feels remarkably novel for 1967, it’s the sort of stylistic device we like to think belongs solely to the likes of Christopher Nolan. But really this is all about the magnificent script (by Frederic Raphael) and the impressive chemistry between Albert Finney (utterly charming) and Audrey Hepburn (who goes from pretty pixie to bitchy madam).

Some of the sequences work better than others. The youngest pairing are so full of promise (that we see simultaneously blighted) that it’s hard not to love them, and their dialogue is so laced with double entendre that it is always hysterical. Another pairing sees them travelling with an infuriating American couple, who you wish to both laugh and strangle they are so totally true-to-life.

But the eldest, successful and bitter sequences are so nasty, and Hepburn’s outfits so gruesomely over the top, that they never quite work properly. Especially toward the end, where the film loses its sense of rhythm and extends each scene needlessly, that by the finale you feel utterly exhausted.

It is still a film years ahead of its time however.

So after what felt like an almost faultless run at the Film Festival I took my chance on an Irish film for my last night, the Saturday, when the director of Song For a Raggy Boy, Aisling Walsh, presented her new film, The Daisy Chain.

A horror (sort of), in the vein of Rosemary’s Baby, the film defiantly chose not to work.

Beginning promisingly with the journey of a young couple, played by the usually reliable Samantha Morton and Steven Mackintosh, to his former home in Co. Mayo as they expect their second child, following the death of their firstborn, the film quickly misses its footing with an overindulgence in twee Oirishness and hammy acting.

A local girl, Daisy, whose face is inexplicably always dirty, is cruel and odd, though friendly towards Martha (Morton).

When her entire family ends up dead, no one suspects a thing and the newcomers to town take her in. Despite her being really creepy.

Suddenly people start to whisper that she might not be human, and might actually be a “fairy changeling” (watch in horror as the cast clearly hold back giggles while saying those words – you might not be so lucky).

The defence comes from Martha that she is probably autistic, but that just raises further questions as to why on earth this couple are left looking after her.

There are a few good sequences: Daisy – who, played by newcomer Mhairi Anderson, is genuinely impressive in her creepiness – nearly pushes some local children off a cliff as she violently demands they “Play with me!”; a crazed local attempts to do away with the girl in a rather fiendish Wile E Coyote-style pit trap, but even that whole scene is spoiled by a slow motion shot that looks as if it was created with the free software that comes with a new MacBook.

The film is riddled with errors. Continuity errors, editing mishaps, hapless dialogue. When Daisy’s parents die, a garda says that the locals wouldn’t be so scared if it hadn’t happened on Halloween, which is the first we’ve heard of this!

At an earlier point, Martha finds a drowned child in the water; when his mother sees her with him she cries “Jack! Jack!” and continues to sob his name. The following scene, down the Garda station, has Martha ask a garda: “What was the boys name?”

A number of subplots pop up without purpose, including a sequence of marital infidelity that comes from nowhere interesting and goes nowhere at all.

It’s sloppy work, which is a shame because it has merit – it is wonderfully shot in some impressive Irish countryside locations, Morton and Anderson both pull off their roles, and Daisy is genuinely unsettling. But it all builds up to an open-ended climax that reveals that even the writer had no idea how to end this.

There isn’t even a theme, in two charming early sequences a crucifix is referenced (bringing to mind if nothing else The Exorcist), implying that there might be a theme of old beliefs versus new, but this never fully materialises. By the end of the film the only moral on show is that autistic children should be culled before they kill us all!

It was a dreadful end to what had otherwise been a terrific week of solid film viewing. Here’s looking forward to next year, when hopefully I’ll be able to take a more active role. And perhaps I can take in a few more festivals in the interim.

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2008 in Review – The Year the Audience Sat Still

Best of 2008

There seems to be plenty of division over whether 2008 was a successful year at the cinema. Certainly, as the world collapsed around us in all other respects (or so it seemed), the movie world kept up a steady output and, at least in Hollywood terms, continued to turn a profit.

There were enough films to both keep minds racing and allow them to shut down, and films from either side of this divide fared as well as one another.

There was plenty more comic book nonsense in cinemas, but also some of the best films of that newfangled sub-genre thus far came out in 2008.

At the Oscars and the various other award shows, there were few surprises, but also few cries of films being undeserving of their awards as in other recent years.

Even here in Ireland the Irish film industry reacted to one musical award success by producing some of the best Irish films in over a decade, slowly beginning the long crawl out of the gutter of inadequacy.

There were losses of course; Heath Ledger died early in the year and left expectant fans gobsmacked, while Paul Newman and Sydney Pollack – to name but two – passed after tremendous careers in cinema.

There were films I was sorry to miss; I was too cowardly to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days alone, and couldn’t find anyone who dared accompany me. Waltz with Bashir came out when there was simply no time available to see it. Man on Wire also passed me by. These and many more will be caught up with in the coming months.

There were disappointments as well, mostly in films by reliable filmmakers, and indeed in reliable franchises. Hellboy 2 smacked of fanboyism instead of relishing in the same beautiful darkness of del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Indiana Jones returned; needlessly. And James Bond’s 22nd outing was so sloppy it sadly undid much of the greatness of Casino Royale.

As for me, I personally had a great year, cinematically speaking. The highlights are numerous; watching Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm as the centenary of David Lean’s life passed by (I also saw Great Expectations, Oliver Twist and Brief Encounter for the first time over the year); stumbling upon Wings of Desire, Amores Perros, The Leopard and many others for the first time; watching Crank with a selection of my closest, and most sugared-up, friends at an absurd hour of the night. Laughing til I could no longer breathe at Robo Vampire. These are the sort of films you never forget not just because of how great (or terrible) they are but because of where and how and who you were at the time you saw them.

Similarly there were other special, more personal moments. I had the privilege of interviewing both Will Ferrell and Michael Palin in the space of just a few months. At the Irish premier of There Will Be Blood I had a remarkable – if utterly terrifying – encounter with Daniel Day-Lewis. Jeremy Irons invited me to dinner, though never followed through.

As well as all that, this blog was begun.

Thus far in 2009 the crop of films looks tantalising, and one can easily look forward to Milk or Revolutionary Road as much as one can to Watchmen or even the sequel to Transformers. Here’s hoping for as memorable a 2009.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for, here’s my personal selection of the best films I saw in 2008.

(Note: this list is made up entirely of new films released in Ireland in 2008, that I saw. Thus, certain films released internationally in 2007, such as Juno, are present here. In turn, late 2008 international releases, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, will not appear until next year.)

20. Lust, Caution
Ang Lee’s follow-up to Brokeback Mountain was somewhat of a letdown, and was undoubtedly overlong, but the photography, taking in countless greys and greens, was beautiful, and the central performance by Tang Wei was superb. A shot late in the film, of a diamond-laden ring representing betrayal finding its equilibrium on a hard wooden table, was one of the year’s most impressing images.

19. Things We Lost in the Fire

The American debut of Susanne Bier was disappointing for reasons somewhat out of her control. The script’s abandoning of its fractured storyline after the first act was unsettling, and the casting of Benicio del Toro in a film so similar in feel to 21 Grams was a mistake. But it was shot in a very personal style that felt distinctly un-American, and for which it went largely unrecognised by critics and cinemagoers. The performance by Micah Berry (no relation to Halle) as the young son was notable, while David Duchovny gave what may stand to be the performance of his career.

18. Kung Fu Panda
Dreamworks may not have broken the mould with this latest animal caper, but it certainly moved into a more mature, less spoofing area of family comedy with some clever gags and superbly arranged action. Sweet in nature and low on character development, it took delight in its own silliness and provided some splendid animation, particularly in its opening sequence.

17. Lars and the Real Girl
Sweet may not be the word, in fact, Lars and the Real Girl was at times undeniably creepy, but it had buckets of wit to support itself on. The story of a man so awkward and retreated that he can only express himself through the love he shares (romantically, only) for a life-size sex doll is so inventive that it could hardly be anything less than charming.

16. Juno

Perhaps lacking the ambition of Thank You For Smoking, Juno certainly had heart, a solid script by Diablo Cody and an adorable cast. Ellen Page got the majority of the credit, but really it was Michael Cera as the stupefyingly realistic teen dad-to-be and JK Simmons and Allison Janney as Juno’s reluctantly supportive parents who deserve the most credit. The quirky soundtrack and dialogue added to the fun of the proceedings and let the film skirt around its unwillingness to genuinely tackle the issue of teen pregnancy.

15. Iron Man

Comic book mayhem got a whole bag of cool dropped on it this year. Robert Downey Jr played Tony Stark/Iron Man like a father hastily unwrapping his son’s new train set on Christmas morning. Gwyneth Paltrow emerged from who-knows-where to play his long-suffering and ignored love interest with more class than the film deserved. Yes, it was all a little rushed, the villain was terrible and the final action sequence was a mess, but – hey look! Another explosion! Fun!

14. Cloverfield
Seriously, who needs well-developed characters when you have nauseating camerawork and a giant alien crab-lizard tearing up Manhattan?! The night vision subway sequence was superbly built-up and executed, while the whole film gave off a 9/11 but with popcorn feel.

13. Caramel

As sweet as its delicious title, this Lebanese delight from all-round talent Nadine Labaki was the film most deserving of out-the-door queues of chick flick-eager women. Beautifully acted and shot, Labaki chose to ignore the politics and strife of her country and focus on the simple pleasures and sadness of everyday life.

12. Mamma Mia!

Not what one would consider a true piece of art, Mamma Mia! burst at the sides with so much energy and fun that even the dire karaoke singing of most of its leads couldn’t hold it down. Much prettier to look at than it ever needed to be, few were able to resist its cheeky charm.

11. Wanted

For years we’ve waited for a film in which two bullets, shot by two characters at one another, would collide in slow motion and fall to the ground. But who knew we were waiting for a keyboard, shattered across a man’s face, to spell out “Fuck you”? It turns out we were! Hectic, noisy and decidedly over-the-top, Wanted showed enough ‘mad as hell’ attitude to make it more memorable than your average blockbusting tripe. A cautiously curious squeak from a doomed rodent may have been the year’s funniest sound.

10. In Bruges

Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s feature-length debut was as dark as dark can be. Obvious targets for humour, such as overweight American tourists, were made funnier by Colin Farrell’s violently disrespectful delivery of lines we’ve all thought and bottled up inside. Brendan Gleeson also brought a feckload of fun to the proceedings as a simple hitman with a fondness for historical architecture. The duo were unfortunately outgunned and outclassed by the scenery-devouring Ralph Fiennes. The profanity was wonderful, though the ending attempted a philosophical sentiment that the film couldn’t really support.

9. Gomorrah

Violent and gritty, the underbelly of the criminal world has never been portrayed quite like this. There were times when it felt like the cameras were intruding on real events where it was dangerous to be filming. Amazingly, if simply, realised.

8. Persepolis

From Marjane Satrapi’s bittersweet graphic novel came a film that dared to change little from its source material. The growth of little Marji’s confidence in the film’s first act was reflected by her subsequent disillusionment with life in Iran and the world as a whole. Iraqi gasmasks became alien faces and burka-clad fundamentalists became snake-like nightmares through the simple but mesmerising animation. Honest and full of wit.

7. The Orphanage

At the same time clichéd and yet utterly original, The Orphanage was that rare joy – a horror film where nothing really happens. Using the simplest tricks of the trade – a motionless child, creaking floorboards, never-resting cameras – Juan Antonio Bayona created a house of largely unseen horrors, where everything you feared was only what you assumed you should fear. Likely to become a classic of the genre.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

A late release in Ireland allowed this gem to make the cut for 2008. Harrowing and beautiful, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s stroke-imprisoned body allowed for a rich story of hope and sentimentalism while allowing director Julian Schnabel to experiment with camera trickery, light and inventive editing. Mathieu Amalric gave one of the year’s best performances as Bauby, so full of life at one moment, the next, frozen.

5. The Dark Knight

Building on the back of Batman Begins, already a pinnacle of comic book movies, Christopher Nolan drew back on Bale’s Batman and allowed other characters to move to the fore, particularly Gary Oldman as Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent. Though hindered by a necrophiliac curiosity, Heath Ledger’s Joker was certainly one of the most impressive performances of the year. Broken up by clumsy plot holes and an at times overly complex narrative, The Dark Knight thrilled and impressed on several levels, and deserves much of the acclaim it has received.

4. There Will Be Blood

As grandiose in its scale as is the figure at its centre, this beast of a film could not be ignored in 2008. Violent in tone, like many of the best films this year it sought to look at what makes a man, and what a man can be at his worst. Succeeding through Daniel Day-Lewis’s authoritative and terrifying performance (one should not overlook the quality of the writing however), the finale answered that question of what happens when an unstoppable force hits a formerly immovable object. Paul Dano can easily be overlooked due to the towering Day-Lewis, but gave a truly impressive performance as Eli Sunday, a young man twelve fathoms out of his league. The music kept the viewer on edge, while the shocking photography echoed the greatest films of American cinema, from Greed to Gone with the Wind.

3. Hunger

More of an experiment with the possibilities of the camera than a political eulogy, Steve McQueen’s biopic-of-sorts of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands is slow, contemplative and utterly intense. From the beautiful yet ghastly art of a faeces-smeared prison wall and the wasting away of Sands’s body (Michael Fassbender is a revelation in the lead role), to the lighting of a cigarette by bloodied hands and the slow and haunting washing a prison floor, Hunger is nothing less than a work of art. It may become more famous for its exhausting single take sequence in which Sands debates his fate with Liam Cunningham’s priest, but the shot that sticks with you is a blinding beam of sunlight blasting through a bus window.

2. No Country For Old Men
The Coen brothers’ returned to their best this year, again taking a dark and twisted look at humanity, but this time with less wit, and a greater awareness of the potential of the story they were telling. Using Texas in 1980 as a wilderness representative of man’s emptiness, the story injected a pulse-pounding thriller into this void that never stopped pumping til the last minute. Eschewing a musical soundtrack in favour of fear-drenching silence, No Country took several thrilling set-pieces – a river escape from a vicious dog, a darkened stand-off at a hotel door – and divided them with moments of simple reflection that asked no deep questions but invited you to contemplate the answers. The decision to remove some of the most important sequences from the film adds to its sense of chaos and disorder. The stellar cast acted it with such honesty you might believe they were in fear of the script itself.

1. Wall·E

Arguably Pixar’s greatest achievement to date, Wall·E demands to be taken seriously. Almost utterly-dialogue free for the duration of its first act, the film builds a romance between two robots in a future where mankind has lost all sense of humanity. Building on the great debates of science fiction; what does it mean to be human?; what are the effects of our unending obsession with commercialism?; how will our relationship with nature affect the future?; Wall·E repackages them in a new form that is a glory to behold. Spellbindingly beautiful and sickeningly sweet, this animated marvel can appeal to anyone of any age, and will forever have something to say to those who watch it. That there is even a supply of heart-warming gags to boot only seals this as one of the most wonderful products of American cinema in a generation.

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And now, as an extra treat, here are the five worst films of 2008, in my embittered opinion.

5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Great talent wasted on a cacophony of wretched melodies, the clever production design couldn’t hide the hideous CGI nor excuse such a great collection of actors (Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Helena Bonham Carter) reduced to their very worst. The one amusing joke – an unexpected light-hearted slicing of the throat – is a gag, if you’ll forgive the pun, that gets utterly done to death.

4. Be Kind Rewind

An unpleasant and confused little oddity that sees two capable actors (Jack Black and Mos Def) compete for the title of most irritating. It not only never quite gets its tone right, it also came out about 10 years too late to be of any real relevance. The adoration it attempts to show for the cinema really comes off as a pornographic irreverence.

3. Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem

Two once-dominant franchises reduced to teen horror nonsense. One earnestly suspects that no-one involved knows what the word ‘requiem’ means.

2. The Other Boleyn Girl

As ugly as it is dull, this film forced two hours of the most horrid characters upon its unsuspecting victims. Eric Bana appears utterly bemused by where he is and what he is supposed to be doing, while Johansson and Portman repeatedly do their bests to out-bitch one another. The ending hilariously draws you away from the story to focus on the future Queen Elizabeth, as if to try and make you leave the cinema thinking fondly of a far superior film.

1. Ghost Town

A wretchedly nasty little film, an attempt at a comedic The Sixth Sense, sees the talents of Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Téa Leoni squandered in what just might be the most blatant victim of the writers’ strike. One moment of genuine sweetness is so heavy in saccharine after an hour of hell that it feels violating and manipulative. The open-ended finale may have seemed original and smart, but makes it feel as if those involved had no real idea of where they wanted this aimless mess to go.

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Gomorrah – a new realism

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.

4/5

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