Film Review: Gomorrah

Inspired by Roberto Saviano’s investigative reporting, Matteo Garrone’s provocative film fictionalizes the bleak, horrifying tales of ordinary people swept into the businesses of the Camorra, while illustrating the global reach of the Neapolit

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah opens in a spa. A group of middle-aged men are tanning themselves. A younger man is getting a manicure. It is clear from the camaraderie they share that these men know one another. Their mood is jocular, yet there is an undercurrent in the scene, something that belies the locker-room humor. It’s in the movement of the camera, which trails one guy. Rather than a tracking shot to establish point-of-view, the camera is aggressively stalking the man who, it turns out, has a gun. Then, an unexpected close-up of a beautiful, manicured hand. When the bloodshed erupts, it isn’t a surprise. You’re in “Gomorrah,” in the suburbs of Naples, where the Camorra rules and where violence is both random and ubiquitous.

The scene is imagined but the recent internecine war of Naples’ Mafia clans is not, and that protracted slaughter and its aftermath is the subject of Gomorrah, an excellent narrative film based on Roberto Saviano’s nonfiction book of the same name. It’s a Mafia movie where the stars are not the Mafiosi: In fact, the opening scene is a clever metaphor for the themes writer-director Garrone explores throughout the film, which lay bare the myths of beauty, power and omnipotence that the clans offer their conscripts. In real life, clan members die young, power is fleeting, and beauty is accidental.

Gomorrah consists of five stories inspired by actual subjects in Saviano’s book: Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who hands out payments to the families of jailed Camorra members; Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two boys with dreams of unseating their local clan leader; Franco (Toni Servillo), the consummate salesman in a Camorra waste-management business, and his new assistant, Roberto (Carmine Paternoster); Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), a 13-year-old recruit; and Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor who works for a Camorra-financed haute couture house. At times, the stories are enigmatic, but overall the film is so finely designed, produced and directed, and the acting is so good, that a few confusing plot turns are a minor complaint.

Garrone, who has made five other movies including The Embalmer (2002) and Primo Amore (2005), is a painter by training and a Roman by birth. He writes, directs and does his own camerawork, although on Gomorrah there were five other writers, including Saviano. Unlike other directors who pay meticulous attention to the image alone, Garrone's visual style is tied to emotion: Each frame is skillfully conceived to illustrate entrapment, the overall experience of each of the characters. In the story of Don Ciro, it’s in the constricted planes of cement that are the framework of the suburban housing projects where several of the characters live and work. In the escapades of Marco and Ciro, it is evident in a brilliant shot of the boys in a forest, the sword-like tree trunks spelling out their fate.

Featured at last fall’s New York Film Festival, Gomorrah is one of the few new Italian movies to receive distribution in the U.S. It was the Grand Prix winner at Cannes, and it’s Italy’s entry for the Academy Awards. Stylistically, and in its narrative focus on ordinary Neapolitans, it is reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realist films, but Garrone’s palette and framing betray a painter’s eye. Unusual for Italian films with U.S. distribution deals, Gomorrah is shot almost entirely in dialect, and had to be subtitled for Italian distribution.

The global reach of the Camorra businesses is evinced in Gomorrah, in the story of Pasquale, and in that of Franco and Roberto. How the clans operate as multinational corporations is new to Mafia films, with the possible exception of The Godfather Part III, where Francis Ford Coppola recounts the pact between the Vatican and the Sicilian Mafia. Franco’s negotiations in the film only hint at the Camorra’s waste-management business: Saviano’s real-life Franco panicked during the 2004 tsunami when drums of hazardous waste disposed of by a Camorra company washed ashore in Somalia. The gown that Pasquale so painstakingly creates by hand and which is worn by an American star at the Oscars is the true story of Saviano’s Pasquale, a “particularly skilled” tailor. His suit, made in a Camorra factory in Arzano, was worn by Angelina Jolie at the 2001 Academy Awards. Pasquale didn’t know he was making it for Jolie, nor was Jolie aware of the Dolce and Gabbana suit’s questionable provenance.