March 26, 2009


Say hello to my little friends...

Grade: C +

Director: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Salvatore Abruzzese, Gianfelice Imparto, Maria Nazionale, Carmine Paternoster, Salvatore Cantalupo, and Toni Servillo

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

The opening scene of the Italian neo-gangster film Gomorrah encapsulates everything that is good and, ultimately, wanting in this critically acclaimed picture. As Mafiosos relax in a tanning salon, a group of rival gangsters stroll in, issue a few pleasantries to their brethren in crime, and then suddenly gun them down, leaving the dead mobsters bloody and baking in their UV rays.

As the film’s title card bursts onto the screen, the viewer’s interest is piqued by questions generated from years spent watching movies of this ilk. Who are the gunmen? Why did they kill the other gangsters? How will this episode eventually fit into the film’s primary storyline? Surprisingly – and unfortunately – only the first question is answered. Gomorrah is adapted from a book by writer and journalist Roberto Saviano that exposes the powerful, Neapolitan crime syndicate known as Camorra. Saviano has suffered threats on his life as a result of his revelations, and his prose reflects the deadly serious subject-matter.

Director Matteo Garrone extends Saviano’s realist approach to the big screen, crafting a narrative that is gritty and ferociously cynical. Incorporating an Altman-esque approach (think Nashville and Short Cuts), the movie oscillates between five separate storylines (only two appreciably intersect) about Italians affected by organized crime. In one, two brash wannabes named Marco and Ciro steal a hidden cache of Camorra weapons. The hapless duo spends the remainder of the film blithely firing off their guns, robbing a casino, and spouting off loose quotations from the movie Scarface. The casual insertion of Brian De Palma’s kitschy classic, canonical in gangsta rap culture, drives home Garrone’s goal of deglamorizing both the real-life mob lifestyle and the gangster film genre. Indeed, it is telling that Garrone does not spotlight the gangsters themselves, but rather the (quasi-)innocents embroiled in a web of dystopic iniquity.

However, in his attempt to redefine mob movies, Garrone eschews many of the qualities that make such cinema interesting and tantalizing. Garrone focuses so squarely on sin that he forgets it is often the sinners who lure moviegoers looking to be both informed and entertained. For instance, in one thread we periodically visit Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a recent graduate working in that old standby, waste management, who watches as his mob-connected boss illegally dumps toxic chemicals in disused mines. Roberto’s character arc remains flat throughout, serving merely as a conduit of disgust over his boss’ actions.

In another subplot, a timid mob bagman (Gianfelice Imparto) walks a tightrope between feuding clan factions, each trying to exploit him for their own aims. A 13-year-old boy named Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), who longs for acceptance into a gang, looks on as violence envelopes and destroys those around him. And, ultimately, Marco and Ciro are just a couple of knuckleheads who stupidly overstep their bounds.

In trying to squeeze in as many slices of life affected by Camorra, Garrone creates a diffuse narrative that reserves little of its 135-minute running time for developing an innovative plot or provocative, fascinating characters. The lone exception is the tale of Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a haute couture tailor who spends nights secretly training Chinese sweatshop workers in the art of sewing knockoffs in violation of his competing, Camorra-controlled employer. The intrigue in this storyline does not extend beyond the first time we witness Pasquale’s Chinese handlers ferry him to his moonlight job in the trunk of their car, fearful of mafia reprisals. However, Pasquale’s eventually exodus from the dangers of the mob world is tinged with both relief and melancholy: He leaves a life once full of promise for one of safety and security.

Much the same can be said about a film full of thematic import that, stylistically speaking, takes the easy way out. A good filmmaker knows how to sell the sizzle and the steak, and Gomorrah could have used a lot less tumid monotony and a lot more Tony Montana.

Neil Morris

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