Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review - Gomorrah (Gomorra)

"As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster," says Ray Liotta at the start of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, and in Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, two young wannabes share the same sentiment. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) quote Scarface, fire guns for kicks, rip off local drug gangs and dream of toppling the local boss. For 13 year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), the lure of a life of crime is just as strong; he spends his days delivering groceries for his mother, but he watches gun battles and dealers operating outside his home, and he wants to be part of it, even if the initiation involves taking a gunshot to the chest ("Now you are a man", he is told). These are the aspirations of young Italians living on the bullet-scarred streets of Naples, but Garrone's outstanding film shows us where those ambitions lead – to violence, betrayal and death. Gomorrah is based upon Roberto Saviano's non-fiction book that laid bare the inner workings of the Neapolitan crime organisation known as the Camorra, which rules the area and controls its inhabitants through fear. After exposing the Camorra in his book, Saviano now lives under constant police protection.

In attempting to provide an overview of the ground covered by Saviano, Garrone and his team of screenwriters (six in total, including the director and author) have drawn up five separate stories that take us into different areas of the Camorra's operations. While Marco, Ciro and Totò are on the outside looking in, other characters show us the reality of mafia life; such as Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), the meek, middle-aged accountant who travels around a local estates handing out money to those who have relatives serving time and have stayed loyal to the cause. The housing project he frequents is one of the focal points of the picture; a hive of both legal and illegal activity (we see a wedding being celebrated on one level, while drugs are exchanged on a walkway above), and the enormous, labyrinthine structure feels more imposing and prison-like as the encroaching gang wars close in on the reluctant Don Ciro. Another, similarly mild-mannered character who finds himself being dragged into a war he wants no part of is the tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), who accepts a large job from mafia-linked dealers, and whose decision to moonlight as a tutor for a Chinese-run factory has tragic repercussions.

The key thing about these narrative strands is that they show us the banality of the criminal underworld, taking care to avoiding clichés and stripping away any sense of glamour from their subject. There is violence, of course, but the violence pops out of nowhere and is over in seconds; sending a sudden jolt through the audience (it often made me jump out of my seat), and emphasising the constant, lurking spectre of death that stalks behind anyone involved in this world. Gomorrah is unflashy and direct, tackling its subject matter with documentary-style rigour, and Garrone's pacing is expertly judged, giving each of his disparate story strands time to develop in a satisfying way, and ensuring the film always remains balanced. I did spend much of Gomorrah anticipating the moment when all of the narratives would suddenly start to collide (it seems de rigueur for any multi-stranded movie to follow this pattern these days), but although the stories do brush against each other (Totò and Don Ciro both have dealings with a woman named Maria), they never come together in the expected fashion. That decision is another one to be applauded, as instead we are presented with a much more expansive view of mafia life; a film that broadens its horizons as it progresses rather than drawing narrowing dots between its players.

Garrone's direction is direct and lacking in ostentation, but he has an eye for inventive compositions that result in some supremely memorable scenes. The film opens in a tanning salon, with a group of mobsters basking in a blue neon glow that lends the sequence a surreal quality as they are ambushed and gunned down. Another striking sequence shows Marco and Ciro shooting their stolen guns at an abandoned boat as they stride up and down the river in their underwear – the image is both funny and unsettling – and the aftermath of one shootout is shown from above, as the camera follows a dazed Don Ciro through a path strewn with bloodied corpses. Marco Onorato's cinematography is beautifully controlled throughout, and the film refrains from using a musical score unless scenes are accompanied by the cheesy pop tunes the film's characters listen to, tunes that provide an unusual counterpoint to the drama. Garrone also has a real knack for casting – a number of the actors here are non-professionals picked from the local community – and he draws great performances from everyone, particularly Imparato and Cantalupo, who both bring a powerful sense of understated emotion to their roles.

Another great performance can be found in the fifth of Gomorrah's five narrative strands, one which I haven't touched upon yet. In this segment, the ever-excellent Toni Servillo plays Franco, a sharp-suited, smarmy businessman who represents the higher end of mafia operations, a world away from the street-level antics of Ciro and Marco. Along with his wide-eyed young protégé (Carmine Paternoster), Franco travels around the country securing disposal contracts for barrels of toxic waste that are subsequently buried deep in a massive quarry. This is where the big money is, but Gomorrah shows us all of the bloodshed and crime that this empire has been built upon, and how the Camorra's influence seeps into every aspect of life; their profits from illegal activities being invested into legal enterprises around the world (such as the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre). 'Twas ever thus, perhaps, and Gomorrah offers little hope that things will ever change, but rarely has a single film provided such a vivid and engrossing portrait of an organised crime network.