Matteo Garrone's "Gomorrah" may not end up as the academy's favorite foreign film but surely it can already claim the title of least glamorous mafia movie ever made. The movie's portrait, based on a "nonfiction novel" by Roberto Saviano, of the loosely federated Neapolitan crime syndicate known as the Camorra is set in a barren wasteland of concrete apartment blocks and parched earth. There are no suave gangsters and glossy nightclubs, just bottom feeders jostling for crumbs. Two teenage wannabes find a cache of weapons and try to muscle their way into a boss' gang, while an elderly man who distributes payments to the families of jailed gangsters is bullied by rival factions.
Though Garrone proclaims his admiration for more luxurious depictions of the gangster lifestyle, he was determined to go in a different direction. From the myriad stories in Saviano's book, he focused on those of foot soldiers and small-time operators, condensing them into five narrative strands. "It's very difficult to tell the story of a boss differently from any other that you have seen before," Garrone says. "The characters in this movie are more original. Instead of the emperor, we tell the story of the slave."
Garrone was particularly struck by the images in Saviano's book, which provided the basis for the movie's fictionalized stories. He singled out images that symbolize the Camorras' poisonous legacy: children driving trucks loaded with toxic waste as part of an illegal dumping scheme, or an initiation ritual in which would-be Camorrists not old enough to shave don a bulletproof vest and are shot at point-blank range, their tiny bodies knocked into the dirt.
Garrone's goal for the film was to be "realistic, not journalistic," focusing on representative stories rather than naming names -- a prudent strategy since Saviano has had repeated threats on his life: the latest demands that he be dead by Christmas. "For me, a filmmaker is not just an imitator of reality," Garrone says. "It was important to start from reality, to know all the details, and then try to make a transfiguration into another dimension."
Even before Saviano was placed under police protection, Garrone was apprehensive about approaching Naples residents, but he was greeted enthusiastically, especially once it became clear he was making a feature and not a documentary. "People love cinema so much that they wanted to participate in the project and to help re-create the atmosphere," he says. Drug dealers issued passes, "like at Cannes," allowing the crew to pass through their territory unmolested, and onlookers chipped in with suggestions to improve the movie's verisimilitude.
"When I was shooting, I remember there were always 50, 60 people, sometimes more, behind the monitor," Garrone says. "For me their reaction was very important. They were the first audience."
The movie's cast comprises largely local actors and nonprofessionals, with a few real-life Camorrists among them. (Three have since been arrested.)
Together with Saviano's bestselling book, the movie has sparked a wave of interest in the Camorra in Italy, culminating in the recent decision to augment local law enforcement with military troops. But Garrone is skeptical that the Camorra can be stamped out with guns alone. "From my experience, and that is just a filmmaker who lived there for five months . . . if you really want to do something, you have to start from inside, and it takes time, probably generations, because it's something very deep."
Although "Gomorrah" stays firmly in the present tense, one gleans a sense of an abandoned city in which the institutions have crumbled to dust, a place in which organized crime is better than no organization at all. The people of Naples, Garrone says, "don't believe in institutions. The Camorra is the only institution they know."