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By Christoph Huber
Right from the buzzing, symptomatically absurd opening shots of Mafiosi getting tans in the confines of a solarium, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah grabs you with a strong sense of visual expressiveness and never ceases to let go: the film is nothing short of a pile-up of images powerful in both concrete and metaphorical ways. What’s staggering about the hot-cool style of this remarkable, slightly unconventional, and strictly unglamorous Mafia epic is that despite the (self-)conscious large-scale significance underlying its matter-of-factly presented narrative patchwork, the spaces, gestures, sounds, and (telling) details from which it is constructed feel entirely lived-in. Unlike most of the multi-thread narratives in today’s cine-Babel, Gomorrah manages to convince on the macro-level because its makers have taken care to actually attend to the micro-level and build their way up, instead of forcing the stranglehold of a predetermined pattern on the proceedings. Even as it’s pretty clear from the outset that the protagonists stand little chance of escaping the stranglehold of Neapolitan organized crime.
Indeed Garrone is quoted in the press book saying as much: “The raw material I had to work with when shooting Gomorrah was so visually powerful that I merely filmed it in as straightforward a way as possible, as if I were a passerby who happened to find myself there by chance.” The film’s episodes may have been plucked from Roberto Saviani’s bestselling exposé of the Camorra’s crimes, but the attitude also recalls Garrone’s first steps as a filmmaker. Both his feature debut Terra di mezzo (1996, a triptych of shorts about marginalized foreigners in Rome) and the follow-up, Ospiti (1998), were intent on unobtrusively wrestling some hard-won poetry from realist, at times near-documentary, observations. Garrone actually finished a medium-length documentary in 1998 as well: Oreste Pipolo, fotografio di matrimony, a double-edged study of Neapolitan institutions. Its title character is the town’s most famous wedding photographer, whose pictures are de rigeur for couples with a sense of tradition, and are seen as a good omen for the marriage—yet privately Pippolo confesses that after 30 years on the job he’s so fed up that he can hardly bear to look into his subjects’ eyes.
Small potatoes compared to the pernicious power the Camorra system has over Naples, but still…Part of why Saviani’s book caused such a stir was the fact that he was willing to look the syndicate in the eye, more precisely—and sensationally—he was willing to name names. This was doubly unforgivable as he had grown up, like the boys he depicts, in the gangster’s milieu, destined to become one of them. Threatened with murder, he still lives in hiding: For the Cannes premiere of the feature he co-scripted—with five others, including Garrone and his regular screenplay partner, Naples-born Massimo Gaudioso—Saviani had to be brought in through the back door.
Which conjures that opening again, with its touch of perverse mischief, as you realize these Camorra capi standing under the whirring lamps in the tanning booths, or exchanging bits of strained macho patter (“Don’t get burned”; “You have a crap body”) in steel-blue corridors and shower rooms, need to withdraw into this unhealthy, closed-off space to maintain their proverbial sunburned look. The scene nicely sets up many of the paradoxical double binds and straightforward threats that will fuel the intersecting narrative strands—even before the betrayed Mafiosi are mowed down by gunfire, most dying unsuspecting (one dedicated tan-fan never gets to take off his eye mask), foreshadowing the cycles of (retributional) violence that provide the loose convergences and inevitable culmination of the various storylines. Yet this ingenious opening’s double duty as allegory is never strained. The mode is striking, but also strangely self-evident, surrealism, as perfected by Garrone in The Embalmer (2003), which treated an outrageous ripped-from-the-headlines-plot with a comparably casual, restrained interest in significant signs emerging from warped everyday situations, even—especially—as they bordered on the grotesque.
Much like that film got a flavoursome helping of uncanny atmosphere from the wintry desolation of deserted summer holiday locations, Gomorrah’s more indelible impressions stem from the—at times almost lunar—landscapes and strange interior spaces rather than from plot developments. An early panorama of a seemingly inconspicuous concrete wasteland, the central building’s staircase-like arrangement of flat roofs is a ziggurat of fear to come. Later, at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, a lonesome character at the extreme right of the frame seems immersed in Beckettian soliloquy—until, cinching the absurd effect in typically offhand manner, an interlocutor unexpectedly raises his head from a hitherto unnoticeable hole in the ground. Then there’s that Garrone speciality, a disorienting glimpse of woodwork, with its oblique angles ensnaring two young ne’er-do-wells digging for stolen weapons (and their lives). Elsewhere, another man’s head rises from a hole—in the back of a moving car, where he has to keep hidden in the trunk to protect his security. (He’s assured there’s an air pocket and a pillow, but all safety measures cannot outwit the ostensibly omnipresent informers—leading to even more memorably surreal sights, when the car inevitably comes under fire and crashes in a statue park). And a personal favourite: a croaking Don on his bed, a cross overhead, surrounded by kin and collaborators, endlessly hisses his dying curse: “Euro…euro…euro…”
But while currencies come and go, the Camorra’s deadly grip is here to stay. One Mafia affiliate in the business of disposing of toxic waste dryly comments that without their dirty work Campania couldn’t keep up with Europe. As he points to the surrounding fields, his earlier advice springs to mind: mix the toxins with compost and use it as fertilizer—it’s “stuff that the earth absorbs.” That’s Gomorrah’s essence: There’s no grand design to be discovered as in those fate-stricken puzzle pictures; at some point it just sinks in that its movements will not coalesce in order to unravel, rather they are briefly surfacing traces of (and in) a world that has become one with the system. Whether conventional (two boys dreaming they are living in Brian De Palma’s Scarface) or unusual (a tailor working for a haute couture subcontractor and selling out to the Chinese, mostly for reasons of pride: “They called me maestro,” says a visibly moved Salvatore Cantalupo in the film’s most touching performance, upon returning home from the first meeting), the film’s five gangster stories are the stuff the scorched earth of Camorra-infected Naples absorbs.
Gomorrah also works as an assessment of Italy’s systemic malaise in general, which makes it all the more valuable that, however disillusioned, it never comes across as defeatist, or defeated, like late Moretti. (The instructive counterexample in this year’s competition lineup is Paolo Sorrentino’s ridiculous mannerism, which some mistake for satire.) Garrone’s portrayal of a violent and violated world is pronouncedly sober at times—as announced by its demonstrative refusal to use non-diegetic music, in stark contrast to the swelling scores of his previous per-Vertigo concoction, the minor, if arresting anorexia fantasy Primo Amore (2004)—but that is also what gives it independent stature as a Mafia film. Who knows? This work of calm assurance, so clearly the result of trusting collaborations well-rehearsed through the years (it’s Garrone’s reliable collaborators all around, from DP to editor to designer), might make a feasible model for a new beginning for Italian cinema. With its interest in moving beyond the categories of novel or non-fiction, Saviano’s work has been identified as part of a heterogeneous strain of national literature, subsumed as the New Italian Epic. A term that certainly isn’t disgraced by Gomorrah, the film.