Saturday, April 4, 2009

On the Big Screen: GOMORRA (2008)

Matteo Garrone's chronicle of crime has been available on-demand for about a month now, but I've held out for the Spectrum, the local art house theater, to get it. They came through this weekend. I would have saved a dollar watching it at home, but I still presume that certain movies are meant to be seen on a large screen. Gomorra is one of those. While a worm's-eye view of the workings of the Camorra predominates, there are moments when Garrone chooses a vast perspective, as in shots of the barbaric looking projects where most of the action takes place, or scenes of convoys of trucks carrying toxic waste to the dumping ground.

As many may know, Gomorra (an h is added at the end in the US poster art) is based on a non-fiction best-seller that made its author, Roberto Saviano, the Salman Rushdie of Italy for telling too many truths about the criminal clans' involvement in all aspects of the Italian economy. As far as I know, Garrone hasn't been forced into hiding, perhaps because the film is redundant as an expose, or else because details have been fictionalized to a degree of safety. It's still a hard-hitting film.

One thing Gomorra is not is a revival of the Italian crime genre of the 1970s. Those films were more about the cops, anyway, and the law hardly figures in this story. As far as Italian cinema history goes, Garrone's film more closely resembles the neo-realist works of the 1940s and later. But it even more closely resembles the global genre of muti-layered ensemble crime films like Traffic, Amores Perros, City of God and so on. Garrone draws the line at chronological trickery, however, telling his story in as linear a manner as multiple storylines allow.

Essentially, though, Gomorra isn't a genre or exploitation film. It's not about badass or psychotic criminals, except for two stupid Tony Montana wannabes who cause trouble throughout. Most of our main characters are far from badass. They are stooges like Don Ciro, the man who pays out Camorra subsidies to select tenants, who has little if anything of the criminal about him; or bureaucrats like Franco who arranges for the dumping of toxic waste in the community; or working stiffs like Pasquale the tailor who runs a sweatshop while selling craft secrets to Chinese immigrants on the side; or kids like Toto who see no way out of the projects or the streets except to join the clans. The subject of the film is the way the Camorra so completely shapes the little world these people live in and the choices available to them. For the boys, the rite of passage is donning a bullet-proof vest and taking a round in the chest to prove your fearlessness. Escape doesn't seem like an option to anyone -- except, arguably, for Franco's fledgling flunky Roberto, -- nor is rebellion. The two knuckleheads have fantasies of taking over by force like their hero, but their dreams are infantile compared to the entrenched reality of crime in the projects and all over Italy.

As I said, Gomorra looks more like contemporary films from other countries than like past Italian cinema. It doesn't sound like the past, either; apart from an impressive closing theme the film has no original music of the sort that helped define Italian style. It is a violent film, but the violence isn't exploitative. We don't usually see bullets hit bodies, though we often see the bloody aftermath. In fact, after an opening massacre at a tanning salon, which is Garrone's way of establishing his bona fides, the film is relatively non-violent for its first half. The pace picks up, however, as a "secessionist" faction begins to fight for control of the projects, the knuckleheads rob a cache of weapons and start running wilder than ever, and the bosses catch wind of Pasquale's dealings with the Chinese. The violence is usually quick and to the point. A standout moment is a drive-by shooting leading to a car crash and scattering of statuary in a cemetery. Another is the moment of Toto's corruption, when he has to lure a woman he's known all his life to her death.

Gomorra's subject matter is sensational enough that Garrone doesn't need to tell his story in the sensationalist style of thirty years ago. It's grim, grimy and demoralizing rather than thrilling, and it certainly won't inspire fantasies of thug life in any spectators. Whether it inspires any more outrage against crime than the book already has is for Italians to report. All I can say is that it surpasses Mongol as the best foreign film from 2008 that I've seen so far, and ranks among my favorite Italian films of the decade along with I'm Not Scared and The Best of Youth. It may not be the type of Italian film many of my readers are used to, but it's a terrific film in its own right. Here's a trailer:

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