Thursday, January 8, 2009

Gomorrah ***1/2

Director: Matteo Garrone
Cast: Toni Servillo, Salvatore Cantalupo, Nicolo Manta
Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone, Gianfelice Imparato, Carmine Paternoster

In its opening sequence "Gomorrah" states why it borrows its title from the infamous Biblical city when several mafia members are assassinated while they have manicures and instant tans, out of all things. With this combination of decadence and perdition the film sets its mood, but it cheats the audience because those expecting "fire and brimstone" in the end will be essentially disappointed.
Matteo Garrone chronicles the effect of the Camorra (organized crime) in Naples and Caserta through a mosaic consisting of five stories, which are interconnected but never intersect in the way we've come to see in recent films that reccur to this narrative style.
The stories involve people from all the circles of life: Don Ciro (Imparato), a middleman, who makes payments for imprisoned bosses finds himself in the middle of a raging war; in another one, 13 year old, Totò (Manta) becomes involved with a group of gang members who he wishes to join; Roberto (Paternoster) a recent college graduate becomes disappointed with his job as the assistant of businessman Franco (Servillo) who works in toxic waste management; Pasquale (Cantalupo) is a haute couture tailor who compromises loyalty to his company (as well as his artistry and trade) when he aides a rival Chinese mass producer; finally we have Marco (Macor) and Ciro (Petrone) two wannabe gangsters who steal a stash of weapons to make a reputation of their own.
There isn't much of a narrative to follow as "Gomorrah" becomes a sinister "slice of life" kind of film that suggests we could've started watching at any moment and still would get the same results in the end. Garrone's audatious style pays off in unexpected ways (there won't be instant gratification here) as he ends up weaving an epic tapestry that reveals the way in which crime has seeped under the very notions we have of society.
While Hollywood films have always romanticized the mafia, this film has absolutely no glamour and becomes almost vicious in its documentary like approach.
The gangsters here don't wear luxurious clothes or live in ivory towers, they wear flip flops and football team jerseys; death to them comes as an every day thing, which is why bullets here are as unexpected as they are effective.
The film was inspired by the best selling book written by Roberto Saviano, who revealed so much about the Camorra's practices that he has remained under police guard after the book was published.
Garrone takes this idea and gets really close to the action as well, his work with cinematographer Marco Onorato captures this reality as something urgent. The places where the camera is placed suggest it might be the eyes of one of the mafia members because the plot unfolds from within.
The idea that the police or the government will become involved at some moment isn't of concern to the characters here who have become members of an unofficial system.
Still there is haunting beauty to the film, which takes a Neorrealist aesthetic that somehow still manages to feel detached.
Most of the scenes are accompanied by an eerie silence that scares because we never know what to expect. But don't confuse this with suspense, it's just that the we're nothing but foreigners in this land, the people who live there probably don't even notice this.
The scariest thing about "Gomorrah" is that you can't deny there is a certain kind of lawfulness to the way these people live; they all know the set of rules and should live in accordance to them.
For those who don't, like the main characters in each of the stories, the consequences come as no surprise and the idea that they chose to defy these rules makes them seem stupid.
In this way Garrone succeeds, because while he doesn't make the violence justifiable, he makes it understandable within its context.
In the trademark sequence Marco and Ciro fire machine guns in a desolated river, the camera captures their playfulness as if they were little kids building sand castles, they might be criminals but they have not been depraved of their humanity.
For the people in "Gomorrah" death and crime have become the norm.