There is a difference between realistic films, such as those made by John Cassavetes, and cinema verité, or films that try to approximate realism. Realistic films know they are fiction, but nonetheless mimic reality for the sake of art, whereas cinema verité attempts to fool viewers into thinking it is real. Matteo Garrone’s 2008, 137 minute long gangster film, Gomorrah, is the latter sort of film, and in its attempt at fooling the viewer lays bare its artifice, as well as its essential failure, insofar as making any claims on greatness. This is not to say it is a bad film, just not a great one. It is a good film, with interesting moments, but far too often the film’s multiple characters and stories are wanly sketched and inspire no care, much less recognition, and the action unfolds in a wholly anomic manner. In fact, little of it actually unfolds, and this lack of action; real action, inner action — not bang bang action — makes the film, at its worst, quite boring. Some critics have attempted to call the film Neo-Neo-Realism, but this isn’t apt. Nor are the claims that this is a Mafia film. It’s not. In fact, it’s a Camorra film, and the Italian Camorra (the play on words, with the rhyming Gomorrah, is as forced as it is heavyhanded), based in Naples, is different from the Sicilian-based Mafia, in that, whereas the Mob, and most other organized criminal groups operate in the hierarchical vertical structure of a Family, the Camorra operates in a more horizontal, cell like structure. The Camorra, therefore, has more in common with terrorist groups, such as Al Quaida, in that it centers less power with individuals. But, none of this trivia matters to the film — although many bad critics love to trumpet the factoids they gleaned from press releases or a good Google search as if that made up for the film’s lack.
The film follows multiple characters in a turf war between competing Camorra factions in a poor ghetto area of Naples called Scampia, and opens with a hit on some goombahs in a tanning parlor. Little is seen of the police or local Church figures, and Gomorrah alternates between a cast of characters whose tales are as confusing as the characters are recognizable. Nonetheless, the main characters are Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a middle-aged bagman who wants out of the Biz, but is forced into it by threats and intimidation. He saves his own hide by turning on former colleagues and leading their enemies to ambush them. Perhaps the most initially sympathetic character is a young teen boy named Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), who aspires to be a bagman, like Ciro, and who, like other young punks in his neighborhood, takes a test of manhood — being shot while wearing a Kevlar bulletproof vest. He still has ethics, but ultimately caves in, and leads thugs to take out the mother (Maria Nazionale) of his former friend, Simone, whose son spurned the gang he joined for another, declaring he and Totò friends turned enemies. Perhaps the only character who retains his decency and conscience is Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a college graduate who works for his uncle Franco (Toni Servillo), who illegally dumps toxic waste — mostly chromium and asbestos at old quarries, thus poisoning areas around town, and killing people with carcinogenic compounds. In one scene, a drum of toxic chemicals nearly kills a truck driver. Franco refuses to get authorities involved, and even hires young boys to drive the trucks. Roberto eventually quits on his uncle, after he sees the damage their business does to the local farers’ crops and their health. Franco chides his “gutless” nephew. Another middle aged middle man involved in the local corruption is Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) a designer and tailor who works for Lavarone (Gigio Morra), a sweat shop owner with ties to one of the gangs. To make more money, after years of being exploited, Pasquale is driven to a Chinese owned factory, where he is treated like a maestro, and is to teach the immigrants his tricks of the trade, for 2000 euros a lesson. To keep him safe, the Chinese drive him to and from work in the trunk of their car. Camorristas find him out, and open fire on the car. Pasquale survives but quits on his boss, and becomes a truck driver, where, one night, he sees the movie star Scarlett Johansson on tv, and dreams that she is wearing one of his dresses. The most repugnant characters in the film are a pair of older teenaged psychopaths named Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), who cause random trouble between gangs, and see themselves as being founders of a new Camorra gang. They act out some of the more over the top scenes from the Al Pacino film, “Scarface,” then steal a cache of arms, and are set up for execution by an older member of the local clan (who has had his larynx removed, due to smoking, and speaks robotically) whose turf they are impinging upon, by a faux offer of a hitjob on someone else. The film ends with the two punks’ corpses loaded into a bulldozer and hauled away on a beach, just like the toxic waste hauled by Franco and company.
The problem with the film is that the viewer gets no “ins” to any of the characters. They are all surface level, and merely tools to screed against how bad — surprise, surprise — gangsters are. Well, duh! But all the whys are AWOL. Why are these characters drawn to the Camorroa thugs? And why in its telling are the characters followed not the Camorristas, but their hangers-on; not members of the Underworld, but the Subunderworld? These are the characters, that in most gangster films, are extras or the first characters killed off. The film’s screenplay suffers from what might be best called a lack of vision and cohesion, and considering that six people are credited with the script’s production — Matteo Garrone, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, and Massimo Gaudioso — the tale is anomic and weak where it is not predictable, and dull and macho where it is oh so not pretentious. As example, when Marco and Ciro enter a den of African drug dealers, you know they’re gonna rob them, and you know they are soon to die when the older gangsters contracts for them to do a hit. The film’s soundtrack is an excellent one — void of musical scoring but loaded with effective ambient sounds. The cinematography, by Marco Onorato, has moments that rival the best in a Michelangelo Antonioni film (scenes in the quarries and shots of factories, but most of the time the scenes are framed in the cinema verité manner that espouses a seeming lack of technical skill). The film is subtitled, but many scenes go untranslated — especially scenes with the Chinese-Italians. The acting ranges from good to amateurish, as many of the actors in the film are non-professionals. Although Gomorrah won the Grand Prize of the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, one suspects it was a PC award, while the film is not bad, it’s nothing special — save being a gorier picaresque than normally depicted on film.
I opened this review speaking of the difference between cinema realism and cinema verité, and, to use two different films on gangsters, if “Mean Streets” is the former, this film is the latter, because the Martin Scorsese film shows characters in dramatically poetic situations that involve the viewer, and get him to expend emotional energy and investment in the tale, while Gomorrah doesn’t. Scorsese’s characters use machismo and braggadocio to put forth a posit on life and individuals’ struggles with it. Garrone’s film merely meanders through the motions of what a film is supposed to look like as it attempts to be not art. It is, bizarrely, pretentious in its external strivings to not be so. The extent of its characterization is as facile and shallow as the names of professional American sports teams on the t-shirts they wear, just to be cool. Its premise is that it is real, and it wants the viewer to buy into that reality, seemingly trumpeting it with patches of boredom and anomy because, well, isn’t life boring and meaningless? This is akin to the tyro writer who excuses his bad writing’s use of clichés and dullness with the spurious claim that banality and listlessness were the things he was aiming for.
Gomorrah clearly aims to be epic, but it’s actually a dark, dingy little film about people who are vermin. This is the stuff of a good or better film — and such films have been made on just these topics, but this is not that film, for the reasons mentioned, therefore it fails in its aims. It’s a solid, interesting film, technically, and at best, with the same in terms of its story, but great it is not, for while it tantalizes it never fully succeeds to even make the viewer care for its protagonists, nor their plights. And that’s a verité for this bit of cinema, whether certain parties approve or not.