by HELEN GEIB
Gomorrah is the Biblical city synonymous with unrepentant sinners. As title of the Italian film Gomorrah, it is a chilling descriptor and a play on words of Camorra, the organized crime syndicate that controls the city of Naples and the surrounding countryside. The film is based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s expose of the same title, published in 2006; it was directed by Matteo Garrone. Among other honors, Gomorrah was awarded the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and best film at the European Film Awards for 2008.
The plot interweaves five stories illustrating the Camorra’s culture and operations. Three are set squarely within the organization, in different segments and levels. We see glimpses of the inner workings in another story, where the main characters play at being gangsters and draw attention they shouldn’t want. The syndicate is heard, but not seen and its reach acutely felt in the last.
The principal characters are a middle-aged bagman whose job is to hand-deliver subsistence money to Camorra dependents, “retirees” and wives of jailed members, who live in a hulking, decaying apartment complex. A 13-year old boy who lives in the same complex and in the course of the story joins the organization in an entry-level position. A “businessman” coordinating illegal dumping of industrial waste in rural areas and his protégé. Two sociopathic older teenagers who quote dialogue from Scarface and think they can live the gangster lifestyle without becoming drones in the machine. Lastly, a tailor employed by a Camorra-financed haute couture workshop.
The characters do not interact across storylines, although both the bagman and the boy from the apartments are caught up in the same local turf war. The complex is incubator, base of operations, and retirement home for the local branch of the syndicate. Garrone introduces the two stories set there concurrently using parallel editing. The boy delivers groceries to residents for his mother’s small business while the bagman makes his rounds doling out cash payments to the people on his list. There is nothing incongruous in the juxtaposition. Both activities are part and parcel of the fabric of daily life in this place; the organization’s infiltration of the community is complete. The point, and the suggestion that the boy’s future enrollment is an inevitability, is reinforced by the final scene of the sequence: the camera pulls back to a bird’s eye view of the rooftop where young boys happily playing in a wading pool are next door neighbors to lookouts, stationed around the perimeter, who continually narrate what is happening on the street below.
The filmmaking creates an impression of documentary-style realism that defeats any impulse to glamorize the subject matter. Gomorrah was filmed on-location in Naples and its environs. The cast is a mix of professional and non-professional actors. There is no score; the soundtrack is occasional bursts of source music. The film uses only natural lighting. Some of the camerawork is handheld.
The camera is sometimes a dispassionate observer stationed at a distance from the events it records. At other times, it seems infected by the characters’ mood; following the sociopathic teens, it jumps and twitches with their purposeless restlessness. There are devastating point-of-view shots. The camera stands near the “waste management” trainee as he watches children, brought in to replace truck drivers angered at mistreatment, drive trucks loaded with barrels of toxic waste to the floor of a disused quarry. When the bagman flees the scene of a mass shooting, the camera hovers above his head, looking straight down at the ground as the lucky survivor steps carefully around dead bodies and pools of blood.