Gritty Italian crime flick follows the thankless middle men in Naples' criminal underworld
Fascinating creatures, gangsters. Gomorra opens on a group of them, beefy and hard-looking men, indulging in tanning-booth rays and manicures at a grimy salon. The all-encompassing blue of the UV light and the unexpected preening behavior primes you for yet another flashy cinematic installment of Lifestyles of the Lawless and Ruthless. Within minutes there's blood on the walls and director Matteo Garrone's Gomorra has proven rather ruthless itself, and certainly not just another flick faintly glorifying made men. The movie is based on Roberto Saviano's 2006 book of the same name, which exposed the clannish Southern Italian crime organization the Camorra, infamous for its viciousness and the reach of its insidious tentacles. (Fun fact: The book earned Saviano serious death threats and a permanent police bodyguard.) Garrone's movie carries through the same clear-eyed, nitty-gritty view of Neopolitan thug life, which is sure to appeal to no one who sits through this powerful depiction.
For example, there's nothing seductive about the existence of Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato). A hangdog middle-aged man in an unstylish windbreaker, he spends his days shuffling from apartment to apartment in the wretched cellblock-like complex that serves as one of Gomorra's main settings, doling out cash to the families of gang members in prison. Young idiot wannabes Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are playing Scarface for real, doing stick-ups and stealing a cache of Camorra firepower, but no matter how brash they are, they still live under the heavy heel of the local bosses. Master tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) sews Paris fashions for a living, but he does so for a Camorra-controlled shop; moonlighting for a rival Chinese firm means getting smuggled to work in the trunk of a car like dangerous contraband. While well-turned-out, avuncular Franco (Toni Servillo) rakes in euros disposing of big legit firms' toxic waste on the downlow, scuffling teenage errand boy Totó (Salvatore Abruzzese) tries to ingratiate himself with the local camorristi, working his way into a life that no one in their right mind would want if they had any other choice.
All of these individual storylines overlap without actually linking up, leaving no central plot, and no central protagonist to root for. But, again, Garrone's not making just another gangster movie. Shooting handheld, documentary style, with little conspicuous artistry, the director focuses on the characters only in illustrating how their lives are run by the Camorra, whether they're members or not. The local rite of passage for boys like Totó is donning a bulletproof vest and taking a Camorra bullet, point blank. One sequence foregrounds Camorra dealers openly handing out testers of the latest batch of coke while a wedding party celebrates nearby. The camorristi keep a certain level of order on their turf, but if someone disrupts it or factions go to war, no degree of casual murderous chaos is too much. (It is perhaps telling that none of the movie's primary characters are Camorra muscle, ugly hulks kept on the periphery of the story until the will of the bosses needs enforcing.) The level of control and the threat of abrupt violence are so thoroughgoing that when events inspire a few characters to try to leave the Camorra behind, you find yourself wondering what other life they can have, if any.
Just as insidious, Gomorra illustrates how the Camorra insinuates itself into the lives of those beyond the organization and the slums it dominates. Franco spends the movie marking hazmats "humanitarian aid" and sealing them in a shipping container bound for Africa or, even more outrageous, burying them like so much dog crap in a local quarry, endangering truck drivers, children, and anyone who drinks the local water. But it's implicit that Franco saves millions for the respectable firms who pay his lowball rates, no questions asked, greasing the wheels of legit capitalism. And then there's the scene where the eternally pinched, pressed, and harassed Pasquale gets a glimpse of the glimmering world where the luxury goods he makes on the cheap end up.
Gomorra isn't exactly a polemic, however, though neither is it an apologia. Its cumulative effect is to relentlessly strip away any glamour that has attached itself to organized crime onscreen and replace it with a resonant vision of street-level crime that offers little gain except subsistence and little future but a bullet. Apart from Franco, the primary characters inspire sympathy for their grim existences, but no envy. They remain fascinating nonetheless.