Abraham “looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace” (Genesis 19:28). Matteo Garrone’s horrifying film Gomorra depicts a sun-bleached Campania engulfed in a conflagration of mafia violence where one could easily mistake the smog of illicit industry for the brimstone of divine retribution. The Neapolitan mob is known as the Camorra, phonetically inviting the allusion to the Biblical exemplar of collective evil, and the film succeeds in making it an apt comparison.
Gomorra weaves together several sub-plots in order to allow the viewer to appreciate how far and deep the tentacles of the Camorra reach. There is the tailor working in a mob-controlled factory, the young boy beginning his involvement with the hoods who control the tenements he lives in, the two rampaging teenagers with delusions of becoming Scarface’s Tony Montana, the middle-aged money runner who delivers monthly ‘stipends’ to mob wives and retirees, and the young man apprenticed to a businessman involved in illegally dumping toxic waste.
The mob’s ubiquity is only surpassed by its total disregard for human life, which the horrifying violence always at the edge of the screen makes clear. The film’s body count may be no greater than that of a cheap action flick, but the realism of the murders is truly disturbing. Without special effects or any enhancement, the inhuman barking of assassins taunting their prey is enough to terrify.
Far from the family sagas and tales of social mobility of classic mob movies, Gomorra lacks any trace of sentimentality; as Manohla Dargis writes in the New York Times, Garrone is “emotionally detached, as if he were conducting an ethnographic study, a tactic that keeps the story from boiling over into melodrama.” But beyond stylistic concerns, this documentary approach is a matter of social responsibility. As Gomorra eloquently illustrates, there is nothing redeeming about constant killing for profit or vengeance – a fact that has apparently escaped Hollywood. If you want to humanize an impersonal institution on film, the mafia is not a responsible choice.
The movie develops against a backdrop of environmental, personal, and economic devastation filmed in a palette drained of colour and beauty, “a place possessed by nettles and salt pits, a perpetual desolation,” as Zephaniah described Gomorrah (Zephaniah 2:9). Despite a certain sordid monumentality, the screen itself seems austere, with few panoramic landscape shots except for a handful establishing locales at the beginning. Most of the film occurs in a monstrous concrete housing project or in the detritus of industry that rots on the outskirts of Naples.
The actual city is totally absent from the film – there is not a single shot of it – creating an intense sense of isolation. (The audience gets a better idea of what Venice looks like, when the businessman and his protégé go there on business.) Except for the occasional police raids that are preceded by the calls of a sentry in the tenements, the state is also absent, as is the church, the family, or any other social institution. The film masterfully manipulates the audience into feeling what could be more cerebrally called living in a failed state: these people act out The Lord of the Flies on a daily basis. Gomorra manages to convey in almost purely visual terms how the mafia flourishes in vacuums of authority and economic possibility while shedding light on the miseries of the Mezzogiorno.
The film is based on a book-length exposé of the same name written by Roberto Saviano, who has been forced to live in hiding under permanent police protection for his unflinching description of the criminals that control Casal di Principe, the town near Naples where he grew up. The Camorra was so enraged by the book’s exposure of their clandestine activities that they wanted him dead by last Christmas. Fortunately Mr. Saviano is among us yet, and has become a household name in Italy. Following the tragic earthquake in Abruzzo at the beginning of April, he warned that the reconstruction efforts could easily degenerate into a bonanza for invading mob clans from neighbouring regions.
One of Gomorra’s most affecting scenes occurs between two young boys. One of them, who is one of the film’s protagonists, pleads with the other to stay on good terms after years of friendship. The other boy refuses because they now find themselves on opposite sides of a mob war, casually menacing his old friend as he picks at his sleeve: “I’m telling you, if you don’t change sides, we might have to kill you, or you might kill us.” As it depicts a world of such senseless and commonplace violence that it has no place for childhood tenderness, the film nevertheless conveys the undiminished repugnance of each drop of blood shed in the name of greed.
Dargis, Manohla. “Lesser-Known Mobsters, as Brutal as the Old Ones.” The New York Times. 13 Feb 2009. 17 Apr 2009
Squires, Nick. “Mafia ‘wants Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano dead by Christmas.’” The Daily Telegraph. 15 Oct 2008. 17 Oct 2009