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Review: Gomorrah

Gomorrah tells tales of initiation and disillusionment, all extrapolated from anecdotes in Roberto Saviano's book.
By PETER KEOUGH  |  February 25, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars


VIDEO: The trailer for Gomorrah

Gomorrah | Directed by Matteo Garrone | Written by Mauricio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviano based on the book by Roberto Saviano | With Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchettino, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale, Toni Servillo, Carmine Paternoster, Salvatore Cantalupo, Marco Macor, and Ciro Petrone | IFC Films | Italian | 135 minutes

Interview: Roberto Saviano on Gomorrah. By Peter Keough.

Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah is a jolting and utterly original take on the gangster movie — or would be had it been made 35 years ago, before Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets. Since then, globalism has replaced neurotic Catholicism as the myth underlying the sordid story of ferrets fighting in an urban hole, but the kinetic, pseudo-vérité style and jarring violence remain the same, starting with Garrone's opening, a blood-spattered, gratuitous sequence featuring mooks in a tanning salon. Of course, if you're going to imitate someone, you might as well choose the best, even though the familiar conventions and narrative tropes tend to undermine the ugly true story the film is based on, the one told in the Roberto Saviano exposé of the same name.

Like Scorsese's film, Gomorrah tells tales of initiation and disillusionment, five of them in this case, all extrapolated from anecdotes in the book, and loosely connected, like the narratives in Babel — it's another look at international misery named after a Biblical disaster area. Two stories feature old-timers tired of "The System," the ubiquitous dead hand of the Camorra, the loose criminal syndicate that poisons the lives of everyone in the Naples community, just as it poisons the environment of Italy with toxic waste and extends its corrupting reach around the world. Meek Don Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor, earns a pittance sewing celebrity designer gowns for a mob-controlled sweat shop. When a Chinese entrepreneur offers him respect and money for his services, he's tempted. But the Camorra doesn't take such challenges lightly.

Some challenges to control are more disruptive. A faction has broken out with plans to take over. The family are at war, and bearing the brunt are elderly flunkies like Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a bagman who delivers cash payoffs to relatives of mobsters who're in jail or who've been murdered. But the youngsters see it as an opportunity. Punks like Ciro and Marco (Ciro Petrone and Marco Macor), a pair of knuckleheads who've advanced from acting out scenes from De Palma's Scarface to petty robberies culminating in a theft of a Camorra weapons cache. They're more like the mooks played by Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro than Al Pacino's Cuban psychopath — but a lot dumber and less appealing.

More sympathetic is 12-year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese). Weary of delivering groceries for his mom, he joins up with the gang, then learns that breaking into the big leagues involves more than the official initiation rite of taking a slug in the chest while wearing a bulletproof vest. More contrived is Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a stand-in for Saviano, perhaps, and an apprentice to a slick big-wig from whom he learns the family's dirtiest secrets.

Vying with such artifice is Garrone's brutal, sometimes sublime naturalism. Shot on location in Naples's worst neighborhoods, events pass without voiceover or commentary of any kind. Maybe the most memorable character is the vast concrete housing project where most of the characters (some played by local residents) dwell. An aerial shot shows its ugly carapace brimming with wickedness and suffering, children playing and armed sentries watching, a city of the plain waiting for Heaven to cast down its wrath.

Related: Interview: Roberto Saviano, Delpy days, Off with their heads, More more >
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