Gomorrah (2008) – this week’s best film on TV
Yeah, OK, Gomorrah has already been on BBC4 a couple of times recently. But this is the old-school terrestrial premiere, showing on BBC2, Wednesday 27th July at 12:20am. It’s helpfully preceded (Tues 26th, 11:20pm) by This World: Italy’s Bloodiest Mafia, a documentary about the real-life inspiration for the film.
(Matteo Garrone, It, 2008)
Goodfellas this ain’t. The Italian gangster movie gets a new model – bleak, terrifying and unloveable – in Garrone’s oppressive vision of a modern Hell
The gangster film has always had a frisson of glamour – that’s why the censors slapped dour warnings on the front of 1931’s The Public Enemy to dilute empathy for its charismatic anti-hero, and why De Palma’s blingtastic Scarface is still a style guide for wannabes everywhere (including two of the protagonists here). Even City of God, purportedly a new paradigm of realistic, socially responsible anti-chic, stole so much of its swagger from Scorsese that it ended up being another icon of gangster cool.
Gomorrah is different. It’s a cold, clear-sighted mosaic, dropping us into its (frankly horrible) world and leaving us – like the characters – to sink or swim, unsure who to trust or how to behave. Based on a searing expose of the Naples-based Camorra gang, Matteo Garrone’s distancing tactics fit the dark subject: the Camorra is apparently, a deliberately opaque and confusing organisation, all the better to maintain the business without being busted by the authorities. But stylistically, it’s also a means of stripping back the glamour. There’s no enthusiastic Henry Hill-style narration to give us the ins and outs of the life (if you want to learn how the Camorra works, you’ll have to read the book). Garrone’s more impressionistic vision wants us to feel the chill of being at the mercy of an intangible, almost abstract menace.
Garrone’s bird’s eye view shows us the gang hierarchy at once, but the levels aren’t connected. Only two of the five narrative strands intersect, and even then only by proximity. The most compelling story is the folly of two idiot kids, driven by those dreams of Tony Montana into causing the wrong kind of racket…but the parallel lesson offered by another kid’s story is that it’s the quiet, polite schemer who is going to go far. That is, if they have the stomach for the long-haul; Garrone cruelly dissects the folly of making a pact with the devil by following two veteran foot-soldiers, both stuck in positions they have begun to despise but unable to extricate themselves without disrupting the order of things. And at the top of this virtual pyramid is Toni Servillo’s unctuously polite boss, outwardly the model of an urbane businessman but ultimately the height of corruption. Where the middle-ranking gangsters deal in drugs, the upper echelon pump a different kind of poison – illegally dumped toxic waste – into Neopolitan society. It’d feel like too studied a metaphor if it didn’t happen to be true.
“Gomorrah is shot with the same steely control as recent art-house hit The Consequences of Love, but Matteo Garrone’s vision is altogether blacker…”
Gomorrah is shot with a similarly steely control as recent art-house hit The Consequences of Love (with which this shares both its star and a rueful sense of humour), suggesting a new wave of vibrant Italian cinema. But Garrone’s vision is altogether blacker, driven by a powerless rage that a whole city can be in the grip of such amorphous evil. What really shocks is the choice of locations: run-down, bombed-out estates that feel closer to Iraq than Western Europe. The title might come from pun on the Camorra’s name but when you see the squalid conditions it’s easy to see that the connotations of Biblical hell run deeper than a play on words.
The men who populate this world couldn’t be further from Scorsese’s high-living Goodfellas. The Camorra army is trapped in a dog-eat-dog world of random violence and awful taste; Mafia-chic suits and big band tunes are replaced by tracksuits and lousy Eurotrance, whose cheesy ecstacy Garrone continually deploys as an ironic counterpoint to the bleak visuals. And these grubby, desperate men do grubby, desperate things. The widespread slaughter is anything but hip; instead it’s sudden, brutal, utilitarian. The opening sequence (a multiple hit set against the icy blue light of a tanning salon) sets the scene, but the cumulative effect is to leave you in a permanent state of agitation. The final half-hour feels more like a horror movie, the Camorra as remorseless and random as zombies. When the end credits announce that someone is killed every three days in Naples, the only surprise is that the statistic isn’t worse.