Gomorrah is a mafia film and while we are well used to mafia films and even like some of them — for example, and if I recall rightly, The Godfather was quite good; do catch it if you can — this is not that sort of mafia film. There are no big stars, no horses’ heads, no violin cases, no corpses dispatched to sleep with the fishes and no contract killings, which, these days, might also be available as pay-as-you-go. It is always worth shopping around and perhaps asking yourself questions like: do I want my killings during the day, or can I wait until the evenings and weekends?
Anyway, this is an Italian–Italian mafia film, rather than an American–Italian one, and is based on Roberto Saviano’s best-selling non-fiction book of the same name which exposed the Camorra mob in Naples, the organised crime cartel — although not that organised; I didn’t see a single filing cabinet, for instance— who, in the last 30 years, has murdered 4,000 people and who makes its money not just through drugs, arms trafficking and protection rackets, but also by doing business in construction, waste dumping, restaurants, haute couture...in short, the mob is everywhere, infecting everything and everybody on the desperate, run-down, mashed-up housing estate where this film is mostly set.
There is nothing grand or operatic about Gomorrah and, as a result, it is poundingly powerful. It is heartless yet gripping, off-hand yet peculiarly intimate, and courageous in the way it presents itself as a series of seemingly disconnected scenes which, ultimately, you have to connect. I know, I know, who wants to go the cinema and do the work? Don’t I work hard enough already? But, happily, Gomorrah not only demands attention, it also commands it. It is nearly two and a half hours long and yet I did not drift or do a supermarket shop in my head (damn; now I don’t know what we are going to eat this week).
Here, director Matteo Garrone, along with his five co-writers (including Saviano), has not so much distilled the book, as teased out a few narrative threads; a 13-year-old boy eager to get on to the first rung of the Camorra ladder (don’t do it, son!); two knucklehead young men who think they can operate alone; Franco, the smooth-talking businessman who is filling the nearby land with toxic waste; an exploited tailor tempted away by Chinese competitors. It is all shot in a highly naturalistic way, almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, in a series of such telling glimpses that, for example, even though we only meet a woman called Maria twice, maybe three times throughout the film, we are shown all we need to know about her just by a glimpse of her kitchen.
In fact, there are many stand-out scenes: the two knuckleheads going berserk with machine guns on a deserted beach, just for the hell of it; the tailor getting into bed with his wife, their baby between them, a symbol of innocence; the trucks moving in to fill the earth with poison; a visual metaphor, presumably, for the way the Camorra poisons whatever it touches and then poisons whatever that touches. There is some violence, but it is not excessive and it is never lingering. Plus, it’s the sense of fear and menace that does you in anyway.
Still, it can be confusing. The Camorra is mostly made up of in-fighting clans, and I was never clear about who was fighting whom, or who even was on which side. However, this could just be me, as I am notoriously bad at keeping up with this plot aspect of mafia films, and will generally annoy everybody by asking over and over, ‘But who killed Uncle Frankie, and why?’ (My partner and teenage son will usually just tell me to shut the hell up, which doesn’t help much, or as I will put it to them, ‘Yes, but I still don’t understand who killed Uncle Frankie. Or why’). Whatever, my confusion didn’t seem to matter very much, probably because this film isn’t about its plot. It’s about money being everywhere — we see it all the time, changing hands or being counted — and yet nothing being of value at all. I can’t recall a single moment of tenderness.
This is an extraordinary film that really does get under your skin. Go see it — you must; you’ve seen nothing like it — and don’t cross me, or I may have no alternative but to take out a contract on you. I’m thinking Sundays after 7 p.m., so watch out.