Movie Review: Gomorrah (Italian w/e.s.t.)
By Michael Phillips, Tribune Movie Critic
So many moments in the fine Italian crime drama "Gomorrah" recall scenarios from a hundred different American-made mob movies. The man told by business partners to crawl inside a car trunk for his safety. The underling telling his overlord he's fed up, and wants out. The crazed young hotheads, cranked on their own adrenaline and nerve, running around with pistols pretending to be gangsters they've seen on the big screen - in this case, Al Pacino's Tony Montana, in the "Scarface" remake.
Such setups may be familiar. But "Gomorrah," co-written and directed by Matteo Garrone, has its own nerve, as well as the filmmaking intelligence to strip the cliches from its densely packed, authentically inhabited narrative.
The new moviegoing year just got one hell of a jolt.
Organized-crime entertainments divide pretty neatly into two categories. There's the sort people latch onto instantly and dive into gratefully because the seductions and family dynamics are so bewitching, as in the first two "Godfather" films and, on TV, "The Sopranos." The other sort is rawer, less stylized, featuring dialogue that doesn't sound like elegant screenwriting argot or awards-bait arias of anguish. Scorsese's "Mean Streets" and now Garrone's "Gomorrah" fit that second category, as different as they are.
"Gomorrah" comes from Roberto Saviano's nonfiction expose of the sprawling Italian mafia organism known as the Camorra. The focus is an interconnected warren of moneymaking activities found most everywhere in the world, but in this case, the provinces of Naples and Caserta. The film begins with an image straight out of science fiction: A man bathed in eerie radioactive blue light, in a tanning booth. The locker room banter is inconsequential, though the murders we're about to witness (four, very quick, very bloody) are consequential enough for those involved. Garrone's final shot in this conventional if garish overture is telling: A close-up of a corpse's wedding ring, dangling on his lifeless hand, reminding us that there's always someone bound to be upset, or homicidal, left in the wake of the killing.
Traversing five story lines, Garrone's camera sides with the watchful children and teenage boys growing up in a pervasively criminal environment. We meet Toto, played by Salvatore Abruzzese. Toto's 13, a grocery delivery boy, respectful of his elders. He's a natural, in other words, for the local Camorra clan's recruiting efforts. In one arresting scene, he learns to take a bullet in the chest while wearing a bulletproof vest. This is graduation day for a rising young mobster.
The "Scarface"-obsessed duo, played by Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone, harbor dreams of glory and of acquiescing to no one. They're the characters in the film's most-circulated photographic image, the one with the two young men in their underwear shooting up a grim stretch of beach on a lark. The way the script has been carpentered by its six writers, including Saviano and Garrone, "Gomorrah" doesn't bother with setting up another fancy intersection of this subplot and that one. Rather, they all live and breathe naturally, more or less on their own, as part of the same blood-stained mosaic. Scene by scene we're shown the full extent of the Camorra's dealings, from the fashion industry to toxic waste removal. The picture ends with the latest Camorra victims being scooped up by an earth-mover - more toxic waste ready for disposal. (An earlier Garrone film, "The Embalmer," likewise ended with the disposal of a corpse formerly associated with members of organized crime.)
Two actors in particular create characters of documentary realism and subtle emotion. As a Camorra-linked dressmaker who decides to earn a few extra lire consulting with a Chinese firm, Salvatore Cantalupo holds the screen affectingly. Best of all is the middleman Don Circo, played by basset-eyed Gianfelice Impartato. He plays the accountant who delivers payment to families of Camorra associates currently in prison. (Some of the exposition lacks clarity, at least on a first viewing; I saw it at Cannes last May, and more recently here in Chicago.) The more heat he feels from his superiors, the more Impartato's face morphs into the definition of "haunted." The empathy we feel for this character is about as close as "Gomorrah" gets to sentimentality, yet in this stark storytelling landscape it's much appreciated.
Garrone deploys no musical score outside what's heard on car radios and social gatherings, and in the ever-present noise of the streets. The editing of Marco Spoletini ensures that no act of violence is lingered over; the brutality is sharp, swift and done before we know what's hit us. The characters in "Gomorrah" may lack an extra dramatic dimension: Garrone errs, if anything, on the side of detachment. Yet that detachment is also the key to the film's success. There's so little hooey and melodramatic head-banging here. Everything works with the steely efficiency of a Camorra capo - the kind who, unlike so many in "Gomorrah," lives to plot another day.
No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for violence, language and nudity).
Running time: 2:15. Opening: Friday at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave. Also available via IFC Films' video on demand platform, in all major markets.
Starring: Toni Servillo (Franco); Gianfelice Impartato (Don Circo); Salvatore Cantalupo (Pasquale); Salvatore Abruzzese (Toto); Maria Nazionale (Maria); Carmine Paternoster (Roberto); Marco Macor (Marco); Ciro Petrone (Ciro).
Directed by Matteo Garrone; written by Garrone, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio and Massimo Gaudioso, based on Saviano's nonfiction book "Gomorrah"; photographed by Marco Onorato; produced by Domenico Procacci. An IFC Films release. In Italian with English subtitles.