After two-plus hours of gangster flick carnage, the Italian art movie Gomorrah ends with a surprise. An epilogue—using solemn white-on-black lettering—explains that the previous gunplay, blood-splattering and numbing Italo-disco pulsations was done for an honorable, muckraking cause. Ha!
Director Matteo Garrone pretends to expose Camorra, the vicious Neapolitan version of the Mafia that has ravaged contemporary Italian society. His title’s clever reference to Sodom and Gomorrah decadence implies biblical judgment. But Gomorrah’s five interlocking stories are told with slow, almost obscenely casual regard. Garment worker Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) tries to outfox the mob; Gaetano (Vincenzo Altamura) double-crosses a gang; young thugs Sweet Pea and Pitbull (Salvatore Ruocco and Vincenzo Fabricino) embark on a mini-war against townspeople while defying veteran hoods; and teenage delivery-boy Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) chooses dangerous role models. Garrone’s mix of local color, environmental anarchy and sensationalism is prurient; Gomorrah always heads toward awful, inevitable moments of deception and vengeance.
In the Godfather films, Coppola’s revelations of our deepest thoughts about law, order and human weakness were enthralling. That’s why the three-thousand gangster movies The Godfather inspired don’t measure up—and why Coppola’s trilogy still feels definitive. And make no mistake: The trilogy is not definitive without Michael’s repentance and penance in Part III. That sense of justice and genuine sociopolitical inquiry are missing from Garrone’s movie and its pseudo-documentary epilogue. Instead, Garrone’s art-film preening works diametrically. It is a solemn, depressive compliance with bloodlust and corruption. In other words: It’s fashionable. Though short of the standard Coppola established, Gomorrah has been a hit on the film festival circuit for the past year.
This is how it works: Festivals flaunt the latest technical and narrative fads; gatekeepers follow up through local distribution and exhibition; and the press “dutifully” ratifies it. The “it” is Garrone’s flamboyantly disinterested style. Since he can’t innovate a genre D.W. Griffith initiated with Musketeers of Pig Alley (1911), he embellishes it with impressive widescreen Cinemascope compositions. Gomorrah is emotionally distanced yet technically accomplished.
Garrone shows near-mastery of multiplane compositions (it’s his ninth film), utilizing all angles and strata of screen space. A two-decked wedding celebration, a statue being lowered into a tenement courtyard, the wide view of chartreuse fabrics throughout a clothing factory and the sight of trucks rolling out of a vast quarry make it feel like these stories are constantly expanding. Garrone shows the corrupt, teeming world, but he isn’t really looking at it. This insufficient, yet refined, approach resembles the failures of Steven Soderbergh’s Che and P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood—two show-offy, intellectually deficient epics. Such filmmaking fulfills a contemporary film-culture process almost as decadent as the mafia itself. To be blunt: Coppola’s emotional directness is superior.
Despite the focus on grassroots criminality, Gomorrah conveys no revulsion. Its details (a waste-dump scandal that connects to the African-immigrant drug underworld then reveals the seduction of local youths) disgraces what once was Italian Neorealism’s glorious social/spiritual perception. The shift is apparent in early scenes of Sweet Pea and Pitbull emulating De Palma’s Scarface—not as cool adolescent style but sheer, nihilistic reprobation. Garrone shares their wantonness.
You could plan an alternative film festival of all the gangster-movie insights Garrone distorts: His mob story neglects the great spiritual and historical investigations of Hong Kong’s extraordinary Infernal Affairs trilogy (which Scorsese’s The Departed stunted). Gomorrah’s mix of arty realism and exploitative subject matter matches the smartass indifference of such critically hailed, dramatic rot as HBO’s The Wire. Aesthetically, Garrone pushes against slick/rough Sopranos/Wire formula, yet it still avoids the real issues until the epilogue.
The pathetic story of little Toto’s corruption (a tale of youth coercion that Notorious recently falsified) suggests that Camorra’s impact is not alien to American experience. Yet, there is no point in falling for Gomorrah when there’s more substance and vitality in the crime sagas Shotgun Stories and What Doesn’t Kill You, the heartfelt Boston gang movie that vanished too quickly. Even a film like Damon Dash’s State Property, where the thick faces and bodies of hip-hop hoodrats resemble Garrone’s beefy Neapolitan goons, offers more instructive portraits of urban ethnicity and social decay. Drained of energy and vigor, Gomorrah confuses gangster fantasy for art.
Directed by Matteo Garrone
At Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center, Running Time: 135 min.
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