"Gomorrah" is a gangster film that departs from the glamorizing norm. The acclaimed winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and Italy's entry in the Oscar race, it is a vividly panoramic film about a pitiless world of criminality. A world where no human impulse or attempt at decency goes unpunished, a world where it's worth your life to get out alive.
"Gomorrah's" title is not only a reference to the reviled biblical city, it's a play on the word "Camorra," the name of the Mafia-type organization that rules Naples and environs like an alternate government.
That's why Italian journalist Roberto Saviano chose "Gomorrah" as the title for the book he wrote exposing in dramatic detail the workings of the Camorra, a book that caused so much of a sensation when it was published in Italy in 2006 that the author remains under round-the-clock security protection to this day.
While Saviano is a central character in the book, a conscious decision was made to leave him out of the film and thus eliminate the possibility of anyone emerging as a heroic figure. Instead, director Matteo Garrone and the film's numerous screenwriters, including Saviano, have focused on the suffocating nature of life under the Camorra, on the corrupting aura of its fatal presence.
The film adroitly intercuts five stories from the book, stories of people who believe -- without saying so in so many words -- that they can cut their own deals with the system, bend its inflexible savagery to their own ends. Escape, however, is not in the cards.
"Gomorrah" opens with a brief scene that isn't part of the interconnecting stories but sets a crucial tone. Occurring in, of all places, a tanning salon, it illustrates the violent chaos that rules this world and presents the beginning of a turf war that will derange everyone's lives even more.
The oldest of "Gomorrah's" protagonists, Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), is a fastidious bag man for the organization who makes weekly rounds delivering money to the families of imprisoned mobsters. The youngest is 13-year-old Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a wannabe gangster who thinks only of becoming a player in the adult world.
Equally enamored of the thug life are Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (Marco Macor), two older teens who have so memorized sections of "Scarface" that they've deluded themselves into thinking they've become the characters. The scene of these two firing automatic weapons in their underwear has become "Gomorrah's" signature image.
The film's last two stories involve mature adults. A Camorra executive involved in toxic waste disposal (Toni Servillo) tries to bring a younger man (Carmine Paternoster) into the organization. And a master dressmaker (Salvatore Cantalupo) has to decide whether to clandestinely aid a group of Chinese rivals.
Garrone, a young filmmaker whose previous work is not well known in this country, has done several things to make these stories compelling, starting by mixing unknown actors with exemplary stars like Servillo (memorable in Italy's other Cannes winner, "Il Divo") in a way that enhances verisimilitude.
Because being true to life was important to him, Garrone shot on location, placing many scenes in the hulking housing complex called Vele di Sampi, a locale so authentic that cinematographer Marco Onorato told Kodak's InCamera magazine "we could only shoot for a couple of hours in the morning because the effects of crack made the people aggressive and our safety would have been compromised."
In addition to directing, Garrone also served as his own chief camera operator, which enabled him to add an intimacy to the film's photography, to create a verite feeling by getting as close to his subjects as he felt was necessary.
"Gomorrah" ends with type on the screen, informing us that the organization caused 4,000 deaths in the last three years while funneling money into enterprises both illegal and legal, including the rebuilding of the World Trade Center towers.
The fingerprints of the Camorra are everywhere, this film wants us to know, and its grip is lethal.
MPAA rating: No rating
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Playing: In limited release