by Jeff Meyers
They'd eat Tony Soprano alive. David Chase handed fans of his faux-Shakespearean Mafia soap opera an abrupt and unsatisfactory ending in order to make a point: that Tony was a murderous thug who didn't deserve the love audiences gave him. Of course, Chase spent six seasons seducing, charming and entertaining those audiences into thinking the exact opposite, but why quibble with hubris?
While Matteo Garrone's riveting Gomorrah will inevitably be compared to The Sopranos, this bleak pseudo-journalistic study of organized crime in Naples is more in sync with the multi-headed narrative hydra that was HBO's The Wire, offering us a quintet of corrosive street-level tales.
Opening with an unexplained massacre at a tanning salon, Garrone's film casually unspools five sordid stories of scams, thefts and killings perpetrated by the Camorra "System" in neo-reportage fashion. There's Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a master tailor struggling to escape the mob's sweatshop infiltration of haute couture; teen thugs Sweet Pea and Pitbull (Salvatore Ruocco and Vincenzo Fabricino), who have delusions of becoming local versions of Al Pacino's Scarface; grocery delivery-boy Toto, who desperately wants to become a gangster; and Gaetano (Vincenzo Altamura), an aged bagman who's decided to double-cross his mob bosses.
From crack cocaine to toxic waste disposal to arms dealing and counterfeiting, Gomorrah's plot threads are all pulled together into a jarring knot of betrayal, murder and tragedy. It echoes the unfettered criminal universe of Fernando Meirelles's City of God but avoids its lurid (and morally questionable) hyperkinetic sensationalism. Instead Garrone takes a distanced widescreen approach, offering a glamourless view of thugs, con men and shady businessmen. His anger and outrage are subtext to the restrained perversions he depicts, inducing both revulsion and panic.
Though Gomorrah's pun-ish title (the Neapolitan crime syndicate is called the Camorra) suggests a biblical reckoning is due, Garrone's interlocking stories — all based on Roberto Saviano's 2006 bestselling book (the author lives under police protection, by the way) — offer no examples of human decency. Everything and everyone is warped by a pervasive culture of criminality. It's a despairing view of humanity that never achieves the penetrating brilliance of The Wire, but carries with it enough social realism and visceral charge to disturb.
But while Garrone's impersonal take on the Camorra's lurid workaday brutality is laudable for its defiance of liberal-humanist depictions of the criminal underclass, he fails to actually look at his subjects with any psychological or sociological depth. The result is a static, undramatic, you-are-there presentation that never fully engages the viewer. And, unlike David Simon's masterful HBO series, Gomorrah isn't depicting a parallel underworld of corruption and violence but rather the very world of Naples itself, a landscape of unrelenting physical and economic warfare. It's a grim but shallow portrait of the modern world unhinged by a depraved and Darwinian form of gangster capitalism. You can't help but wonder how at home the Camorra would have felt in the Bush administration.
Garrone delivers a devastating gut punch in Gomorrah's final moments, as it makes clear the insidious and inevitable reach of those who think nothing of poisoning their own water, children and future for the sake of a buck. He reveals how effortlessly "The System" has blended into everyday commerce, debasing society on nearly every front. The Camorra is even involved in the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site (as the final titles reveal). Is this the inevitable price of global and unregulated capitalism? If so, then say hello to their little friend: the apocalypse.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Feb. 27-28, and at 2 and 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 1. It also shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday-Saturday, March 6-7, and at 2 and 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, March 8. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.