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Vertical Disintegration: Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah”

By Michael Koresky | Indiewire February 10, 2009 at 3:28AM

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
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[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

It’s about time we had a mafia movie that was nothing more (and nothing less) than a film about defeat. And naturally it had to come from someone very much on the inside. Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah,” based on the book of the same name, written undercover by Italian reporter Roberto Saviano, is hopeless in all the right aesthetic and ethical ways, and in its despairing, nearly anthropological look at crime from the top down in contemporary Campania (capital, Naples) it refuses to either sermonize or romanticize. The latter has been a loaded term in regards to the gangster genre for decades, and it’s often deployed as easy chastisement for those violent films that dare entice viewers with things like narrative, character, and resolution—certainly few could exit Scorsese’s eye-popping, throat-slitting “Casino” with aspirations to the mob life, regardless of its luxurious swish-pans and incandescent lighting. But “Gomorrah” is a whole other beast, a furiously detached view of the entrenched, corrupt system (the “camorra,” in translation) that allows and encourages the widespread death and murder of thousands every year in Italy. If your only previous experience with a melancholy mafia movie was “Donnie Brasco,” then Garrone is about to seriously sideline you.

Like Richard Linklater’s superlative, underrated “Fast Food Nation,” Garrone’s adaptation uses general reportage from its source material as inspiration for specifically dramatized subplots that weave together into a chilling tapestry of unofficially sanctioned social despair. In other words, this is no underbelly: this is everything. (Of course “Gomorrah”’s more sensational backstory has already gotten the film more attention: Saviano now lives in hiding; “Fast Food”’s Schlosser only temporarily made Ronald McDonald tremble.)

A few have decried the film’s rigorously dispassionate ethos, claiming that Garrone’s reserve creates too much of a distance between viewer and onscreen personage and that the film elides information in favor of atmosphere. I’d argue that it’s this narrowness of vision, when combined with the film’s impossibly wide social scope, which makes it such a harrowing experience. We begin in medias res, and we never feel like we truly get our footing—as the punning title infers, everything we witness will be at once familiar and inexplicable (this is the literal “Camorra,” but also the unimaginable hellfire of Gomorrah). We jump between five tidbits—not stories, really, but snatches of lives of vain pursuits and violent ends—all presented at first disorientingly: suave toxic-waste management “specialist” Franco tries to educate possible protégé Roberto, just out of university, in the ways of the trade; middle-aged money carrier Don Ciro, whose clan’s power is dwindling, tries to hang on to whatever time he has left; impressionable, poor 13-year-old Totò sees his hardscrabble work ethic co-opted by local gangsters; tailor Pasquale, who works under the table sewing haute couture for a subcontractor, unwisely betrays his corrupt employers by defecting to Chinese competitors; and, finally, we have Marco and Ciro, dumb thug teens with “Scarface”-honed aspirations who are constantly tangling themselves up with the local bosses.

While other filmmakers certainly would have trumped up any of these scenarios for prime impact in the hopes that critics would call it “visceral” (imagine the hectic brain-fart Guy Ritchie would have made out of it all), Garrone is hardly interested in the seductive spell gangland warfare might cast. Instead, this is a way of life, as mundane and workaday as farming. The filmmaker’s parched-land visuals heighten this sense of Campania as a vast, horizon-less nowhere; foreground movement is kept tight and close, while often everything else is out of focus. It’s all immediate action—drug deals, sudden gunshots, tense altercations—and fuck consequence; there is no out there, no tomorrow.

Garrone and cinematographer Marco Onorato’s camera apes point of view, but it looks on from a remote pair of deadened eyes. This makes for constant, and necessary, spectator discomfort: we’re used to seeing some of these basic mafia tropes played out in other films, but here they happen unexpectedly, even when they move upon a predictable narrative track. Marco and Ciro’s story makes for the queasiest viewing, since, frighteningly they’re the closest thing many will have to audience surrogates: they may be unmoored, witless, vile, and remorseless, but they’re also the only ones on screen looking for a narrative, and their context for violence comes from the same places as does ours: the movies. We’re thus implicated. Through Marco (Marco Macor), with his stout handsomeness and smoky voice (he sounds thirty years older, like Michael V. Gazzo in “The Godfather Part II”), and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), with his emaciated storklike features, Garrone transforms “Gomorrah” from a particularly vile nature documentary into an invigorating treatise on film-watching.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]

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