By Greg Oguss
I’m not sure why I quit going to art houses. I still affectionately recall watching the latest import or a beloved classic in some hot airless chamber on a screen the size of the average HD-TV while a foul-smelling gent spills his popcorn all over my girlfriend and babbles about the genius of Betty Grable. Today, I go to the multiplex like everyone else for films like The Wrestler and Slumdog Millionaire, offerings from mainstream directors detouring with offbeat subject matter and muted stylization to conjure the anachronistic notion of ‘art cinema.’ My latest burst of art house nostalgia was brought on by Italian director Matteo Garone’s unflinching mafia exposé Gomorrah, loosely adapted from the nonfiction best-seller by Roberto Saviano. I caught the movie with a crowd of industry hangers-on (yes, I mean you, BFF of the director of The Uninvited) in a plush screening room in West Hollywood where the ambience was a far cry from my art house memories. But the film itself, which offers a miraculously fresh take on a moldy genre, is what brought to mind my years of discovering masterpieces in tiny overheated theaters. Gomorrah effortlessly interweaves five distinct stories of low-level functionaries, businessmen, gunsels, and young kids with mobster dreams, all of whom serve one of the appendages of the Camorra, the mafia that controls a vast region around Naples.
There is nothing glamorous or faintly heroic about the life led by these Mafiosi, no matter how far up the food chain the story travels to depict the Camorra’s reach. The fat sickly bosses who run the organization spend their time playing video games and cards, seemingly having profited little from their rise to the top. But they are far better off than the retired foot soldiers whose families are struggling to put food on the table despite a weekly severance delivered by Don Ciro, an aging, mild-mannered money-carrier for the Camorra. Ciro, like many of those insulated from the drug trafficking and killing, attempts to delude himself that he’s just doing a job for pay like any other. When a civil war breaks out between rival factions, this logic unravels and everyone is touched by the gory consequences. As Ciro begs for his life, a bloodthirsty aspiring don explains this hypocrisy succinctly to him, “You carry money and I kill people. We’re the same, in this war.”
Garrone’s approach deftly mixes classic Italian Neo-realist techniques (the use of talented non-professionals, location shooting, long takes) with liberal amounts of grisly violence to convey the texture of life among these damned souls. Like the neo-realist imports The Bicycle Thief and Open City which invaded the first American art houses after World War II, the film best illustrates its tragedy through the eyes of its youngest characters. A pair of teenagers obsessed with Brian De Palma’s Scarface attempt to become their neighborhood’s answer to Tony Montana. While fearlessly blundering their way from one violent caper to the next, the boys succeed only in making an enemy of the local don. The Camorra also recruits look-outs from the tweens wandering the neighborhood slums, including Salvatore Abuzzese’s Totò, whose performance becomes the movie’s emotional center. The untrained Abruzzese’s taciturn line readings and expressive eyes convincingly suggest a child who is equal parts naked vulnerability, wise-beyond-his-years toughness, and youthful ignorance. But Totò’s harsh upbringing has rendered him incapable of surprise, even when undergoing a rite of passage into the clan which seems far more scarring (literally and physically) than the typical gangster movie loyal test of having to kill off a rival.
The Scarface references aren’t arguing the case that violent entertainment begets violent children or the truism about contemporary gangsters taking their cues from movie gangsters. Instead, they merely make an effective contrast between De Palma’s romantic vision and a milieu without any charismatic anti-heroes or blaze-of-glory deaths, where loyalties are never taken seriously enough to be betrayed. Even the few functionaries who walk away from the corrupt empire by the story’s end lack nobility, with their paths determined principally by cowardice and naiveté. Despite being well-versed in the bloody justice doled out by the mafia, the film’s myopic characters have little understanding of how completely the illegal and legal businesses of the Camorra shape their existence. Gomorrah’s end-titles offer a tally of official statistics to illustrate the Camorra’s social costs, suggesting that, by certain measures, this is the most criminally violent place on the planet. But the film offers no scenes of anti-mafia police efforts and the collective struggle required to change the region’s way of life is beyond the imagination.
Journalist Roberto Saviano, whose book inspired the film, had the courage to embark on his own crusade against the bloody status quo, with his efforts earning him a death sentence from the Camorra. Although he’s currently alive and living under full-time police protection, the death sentence has only added to the interest in the story. But despite the level of international acclaim and curiosity, Gomorrah is inevitably a film about which people wonder, Will American audiences be interested? The question is a bit of a red herring. It hasn’t been a lack of audience interest but the major American studios’ tentative entry into art cinema with their own boutique distribution companies that’s crowded out most of the quality foreign films. While Gomorrah doesn’t offer a series of Magnolia-ish coincidences to link its five plotlines together, its un-romanticized brutality, elegant structure and batch of memorable performances make it a must-see for any fan of ambitious dramas, whether you’ve nurtured this love in sweaty art houses or via the comforts of Netflix. (opens February 13th)