I wonder what the Italian tourism industry thinks of writer-director Matteo Garrone.
The Embalmer, his acclaimed but icky 2003 drama, took place along what had to be the dumpiest coastline in all of Italy. Now he offers Gomorrah, which not only has the same dismal milieu but focuses on that longest standing of negative Italian stereotypes: organized crime.
Based on Roberto Saviano’s nonfiction book detailing the contemporary Italian mafia – or Camorra – the movie resembles a post-apocalyptic Mob movie done by Robert Altman. Weaving various story lines and characters together over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours, we get a picture of fear, scheming, betrayal and sudden violence, all revolving around the obsessive pursuit of money.
Gomorrah is set in the provinces surrounding Naples and Caserta and, like The Embalmer, it depicts an Italy I didn’t know existed. There are gray, industrial horizons, bombed-out high rises, cramped, illegal sweat shops and abandoned gas stations. There are times when you think you’re watching a gritty piece of end-of-the world science fiction such as Children of Men.
Wandering this desolate landscape is a host of fascinating characters, including a skittish “il sottomarino,” who pays the families of men who have been sent to prison; a tailor who forms an ill-fated partnership with a competing Chinese sweat shop; and two trigger-happy teens who want to make their own way in the world of crime without having to answer to anyone in “the system.”
Garrone’s unobtrusive camera swivels with fascination as it follows each of them toward their generally ill-fated end. His style here lies somewhere between the stability of a studio production and the handheld chaos of an independent project.
What Garrone’s detached approach captures, above all, is the deadening depravity of this criminal culture – hence the Biblical title. Gomorrah is nowhere near as flashy or visceral as one of Martin Scorsese’s crime pictures, which ultimately puts it on higher moral ground. There is nothing glamorous about the mob lifestyle here.
Ultimately, Gomorrah brings to mind not something like Scorsese’s Goodfellas but rather Altman’s Nashville. Both movies are wide-angle looks at a place where desperate souls are frantically grasping for short-lived success.
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