Judge Mike Rubino never liked Scarface.
Our review of Gomorrah: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray), published November 23rd, 2009, is also available.
"I'm Tony Montana!"—Ciro
In America, we have raised the Mafia up on a pedestal of mythic proportions. Men like Tony Soprano, Vito Corleone, and Tony Montana occupy the "sympathetic anti-hero" column in popular culture. Perhaps it's because the Mafia, for all intents and purposes, isn't as strong in this country as it once was (or at least as visible); organized crime back in the motherland, however, is no admirable aspect of society. Gomorrah presents an unabashed, inglorious, and realistic take on organized crime, not of the 1930s or '50s, but of right now.
Facts of the Case
Gomorrah is broken up into five interwoven stories following various people involved with the Camorra clan in Naples, Italy.
Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a 13-year-old errand boy who is asked to join the local gang after discovering one of their guns. Doing so means separating himself from his friends and becoming embroiled in an ongoing turf war in his neighborhood.
Don Circo (Gianfelice Imparato) is a quiet and humble delivery man for the mob, distributing allowances to families who have a clan member in jail. His tedious job suddenly turns dangerous when he tries to defect to another gang to save his own life.
Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is a tailor who begins training Chinese garment workers in the off hours. Doing so means that he's working directly against the Camorra, and he has to travel in the trunk of a car to remain safe.
Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is fresh out of grad school and falls into work with a waste management con artist (Toni Servillo). His boss claims to dispose of waste responsibly, but he's really just dumping the deadly poison into abandoned lots.
Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are teenaged rebels in love with Tony Montana and Hollywood's portrayal of gangs. When they stumble upon a stash of guns belonging to the Camorra, they decide to be vigilante gangsters. Instead, they get themselves in a load of trouble with the local clan.
These five stories are based on selections from Roberto Saviano's true crime novel of the same name. Upon publication in 2006, this book (and subsequent movie) has caused Saviano to submit to constant police protection after receiving death threats from various clans throughout Naples.
Gomorrah opens in a salon as haute mafiosos doll themselves up with tans and manicures. It's not long before each is shot point-blank by an assassin. This beginning scene sets the stage for a generally quiet, naturalistic film punctuated by moments of loud, savage violence.
Director and co-screenwriter Matteo Garrone presents this modern world of Italian slums, drugs, and warfare with little pomp or celebration. There aren't any godfathers dressed in tuxedos or lavish weddings. The only real party takes place in a swimming pool on the roof of a building crumbling from age and weather. There is nothing envious about this organized crime, which acts as a leech, sucking the life out a neighborhood until every family is either conscripted, addicted, or dead. As such, Gomorrah has the style and pacing of a documentary. Garrone films each scene with a wandering eye; the camera glides around, past the characters, over to some important object or background action, and then back again. The result feels random, but everything is finely choreographed.
Admittedly, the film felt disjointed and confusing at first. The characters are each introduced medias res, and the stories are interwoven so finely that, until the rhythm of the film is established, you'll be wondering which plot Garrone's moved on to. Part of this may be the language barrier, which also becomes less of an issue as the film progresses. The dialogue is mostly improvised, as Garrone instructed actors to say lines different with each take. His mission, it's clear, was to focus on the effect these gangs have on neighborhoods and lives. As a result, some characters feel more relatable or fleshed out than others.
The acting is superb across the board, with especially great performances by some of the local children, but characters like the pitiable Don Circo, or the arrogant Marco and Ciro (who Garrone has described as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza), feel three-dimensional and developed. Roberto, the waste manager who is essentially the only voice of conscience in the film, is a more understated character. The same goes for Totò, a quiet kid whose misplaced courage gets him conscripted into a gang, forcing him to leave and betray his friends. He isn't necessarily likable or sympathetic (outside of the inherent fact that he's only a child), but the message he represents resonates completely.
Each story eventually boils down to a message about the Camorra's different dealings within Italy and the world. I admit, I had never even heard of this (apparently) giant clan before, but was shocked by the statistics that flash on the screen at the end of the film. Garrone has created a disturbing work of art that not only reveals an aspect of modern Italian life, but also reverberates through the "Italian mob" sub-genre, smashing any pop culture pedestal we may have (appropriately or inappropriately) placed Hollywood gangsters on.
Gomorrah is presented in an impressive two-disc set by Criterion. The film looks fantastic, with pristine picture quality and sharp details. The cinematography is striking, and the locations are appropriately expansive and dilapidated. Many of the locations were right in the heart of a drug operation run by the Camorra, lending to the film's authenticity. Also adding to the realism is Garrone's use of diegetic sound. Rather than filling the movie with a soundtrack, the music you hear is usually found within the scene. So as the camera and the action moves from one location to the next, away from whatever stereo is blasting music, the soundtrack fades. It works well, and keeps the movie grounded in reality.
Criterion gives Gomorrah the two-disc treatment, packing the supplemental disc with over two hours of excellent featurettes and documentaries. The largest of these is Five Stories, an hour-long documentary about the making of the film. The documentary, matching the style of the film, is pedestrian and rambling (in a good way). There aren't any talking heads or narration, so the footage just speaks for itself. The main thing you take away from the doc is Garrone's style of working and the conditions in which the film was made; little is said about the writing process or any technical aspects of the production.
For more direct insight into the process of making this Italian epic, there are a handful of in-depth interviews with Garrone, as well as actors Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato, and Salvatore Cantalupo. Garrone is very open about discussing his style and the themes he was trying to convey with the film. The actors are equally interesting, speaking about their respective characters and their motivations. There is also a 45-minute interview with author Roberto Saviano, who doesn't hold back when it comes to discussing the brutality of the Camorra. It's certainly an eye opener if you have the fortitude to sit through it (almost an hour of one guy talking into the camera can be a little rough).
The disc also contains a handful of deleted scenes. The majority of them aren't anything special, but there is an interesting segment that, had it been left in the movie, definitely changes the approach to the film's final scene. As always, a well-designed booklet, complete with an essay by Chuck Stephens, accompanies the set.
Gomorrah is a powerful film, rightly hailed as an important contribution to modern Italian cinema. It's a realistic, often savage, film that tears down any positive attributes Hollywood may have attached to organized crime. Garrone's directorial style is loose but finely choreographed, and he manages to make the film's occasionally slow pace work.
Criterion has loaded this release with special features that shine a spotlight on both the filmmaking process as well as the true crime presented in the film.
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