The subject of organized crime in Italy is nothing new to the cinema, and there is much in Matteo Garrone’s film of Roberto Saviano’s bestselling expose of the Neapolitan Camorra that feels like ground which has been firmly trodden on previously. The film’s real strength, however, lies in its real sense of location: the urban buildings, beaches and countryside of Campania, and the colourful dialect of Naples, placing it in the even grander tradition of neorealism.
Firstly, let me say that this film is not, and should not be, entertaining. For two-and-a-quarter hours we are thrust into the squalid side of Naples, seemingly a universe away from the beautiful city Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders were having such a tough time in in Viaggio in Italia (1954). Instead, there are grim Antonionian apartment blocks, sweatshops, seedy strip clubs, the side of Italy seldom seen in the tour books or holiday guides. The film somewhat disjointedly weaves together several different stories, all involving the mafia-like Camorra crime syndicate on some level, however, subtle: from more ‘legitimate’ operations such as waste disposal all the way down to drug-running and murder.
There is little in the way of glamour, or even an insight into a Cosa Nostra-like controlling hierachy; instead, life (and death) appears arbitrary, ad hoc, at the whims of small-time hoods rather than smartly dressed calculating godfathers. If the consequences of messing up in this world are all-too familiar to us, then it is the sheer splintered disorganization of the Camorra which is new. The multiple stories all show reasonably likeable characters – a tailor who copies couture dresses, two kids who find a stash of guns and want to play Tony Montana, an ageing Camorrista accountant – and how these people find it impossible to either maintain their independence or escape from their urban trap.
The stories are not all successfully executed: the two gun-toting young men are so obviously doomed from the outset that their story becomes rather tiresome and played-out, while the strand involving a young man lured by the prospect of money and travel into helping the illegal dumping of toxic waste feels a little flabby and simplistic. But for all of its weaker moments, there are some tremendously effective ones too – the young Totò’s initiation into gang life, donning a bulletproof vest and being shot in the chest, whilst other boys queue as if waiting at the doctor’s surgery; he later proudly examines the bruise on his chest, a near-literal badge of honour.
For me, the most interesting segment was that of the tailor making copies of couture dresses, who is courted by Chinese immigrants into teaching them his craft, inevitably putting the backs up of the local mafiosi who are reliant on their own trade in knock-off frocks and are less than happy with the prospect of cheap competition. The introduction of new immigrant communities is an indication of cinema increasingly showing the new, economically and culturally diverse Italy.
The film’s greater cultural significance lies with its use of a largely non-professional cast, drawn from the very areas it is trying to portray. The Neapolitan dialect is sufficiently removed from Italian for domestic audiences to have required subtitles in order to understand the dialogue, and this feeling for local flavour recalls some of the best postwar Italian films, in particular Luchino Visconti’s Sicilian La Terra Trema (1948). The actors, most of whom new to the screen, deliver superbly naturalistic performances, perhaps having lived the lives of their characters off-screen – see Vittorio De Sica’s use of Lamberto Maggiorani in Ladri di Biciclette (1948).
Critics of the film have pointed its lack of a wider context of Camorra operations: in a piece in Sight and Sound, Silvia Angrisani notes that the organization penetrates widely into official Naples life, and its permeation into everyday existence is much more profoundly disturbing than the petty criminals elsewhere. The film does end with a series of statistics showing how deadly they have been over the years – 4,000 attributed murders, making them the most ‘successful’ crime organization in the world. There is also the small matter of its 150 billion Euro turnover. But the addition of these stats at the end merely seek to flag up the preceeding 135 minutes’ inability to frame this context; why tell us this?
As a piece of cinema, Gomorra is a little lacking in cohesiveness – lacking either the narrative thrust (however artificial) of City of God (2002), or the vibrancy and punch of something like La Haine (1995). As a series of interconnected stories, there is nothing like the innovation of early Alejandro González Iñárritu, or even Robert Altman. But it is still a solid piece of work, largely down to its insights into the city of Naples, far beyond the Castel Nuovo and the Piazza Plebiscito – a city of people living beneath a dirty, inescapable system of organized crime.