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Our review of Gomorrah: Criterion Collection, published November 24th, 2009, is also available.
In 2006, a book about organized crime in Naples shocked the world. Its author has been living under police protection ever since.
As long as you imagine that that world can be divided into "good guys" and "bad guys," you'll never really understand the heart of that world. The truth is that when you're inside it, you realize there's a vast gray zone where good and evil are all mixed together.—Director Mateo Garrone
Facts of the Case
Based on Roberto Saviano's best-selling nonfiction book about organized crime in southern Italy, the movie Gomorrah tells five tales of lives affected by the Camorra—the country's oldest criminal organization. The stories are not connected to one another except by the shared theme of how the criminal culture has trapped young and old in its clutches.
Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a bagman for the dominant clan in the region, delivers cash to families that have ties to the gang (typically, a family member is serving jail time). An easy target for any opportunistic gangster, Don Ciro wonders if he's sided with the right gang.
Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a young boy living in Le Vele, a housing project controlled by the Camorra drug pushers. For him, joining the gang is just a part of growing up.
Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is a skilled tailor in the haute couture garment industry. Struggling to make ends meet, he considers an offer to teach his craft to a rival factory run by the Chinese.
Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is learning about the toxic waste management business from his new boss, the dapper but unscrupulous Franco (Toni Servillo, Il Divo). Together, they search the countryside for illicit dumpsites and offer an economical solution to corporate clients.
Lastly, Marco (Marco Macor) and "Sweet Pea" Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are a pair of young, petty criminals with delusions of grandeur. Each one thinks he's a new Tony Montana but their antics catch the attention of the local bosses for all the wrong reasons.
Here is another gangster movie based on real events but perhaps more than any other film before it, Gomorrah drains the romanticism and glamour from the criminal lifestyle. There are neither good guys to root for nor anti-heroes to sympathize with. There are plenty of victims though. Even a clear moral line is all but invisible as association with the criminals isn't so much a choice for these people as it is an inevitable fact of life.
The movie is based on a book by an undercover journalist but its added authenticity comes from the realistic locations. The filmmakers shot in gang-controlled neighborhoods in Naples where the drug pushers often volunteered themselves as consultants to the crew ensuring that their activities were depicted as real as possible. Directed by Matteo Garrone (The Embalmer), the movie has a stark, detached feel that makes some of the stories feel like docudrama. We're observing these stories without judgment on the protagonists and for most viewers it will feel completely foreign to live in such a pitiless and corrupt system.
Totò is the youngest character whose story concerns his early involvement with the Camorra. The drug pushers are ever-present in the housing project and where else should a young boy turn to if he wants to make some money? Totò starts out as their lookout but before long he has a chance to play a bigger role for the gang. If he has any reservation about what he's doing, he dares not show it because once he's in, there's no way out from the gang except as a corpse.
If Totò's tale sounds like a typical crime story, there are at least a few story arcs that come as a surprise. One involves a master tailor who wants to make some extra money. It isn't obvious at first how risky it is for Pasquale to teach workshops to a group of Chinese garment workers. However, the deal is struck secretly and he is escorted to and from the lessons in the trunk of a car. We learn in the movie's postscript and from the supplemental materials that the proceeds of crime are reinvested in various legitimate and less-than-legitimate businesses. The world of high fashion is one such industry where the Camorra has an interest. That means its skilled workers and their trade secrets have to be controlled. A rival factory employing cheap Chinese labor is practically the same thing as rival drug dealers encroaching on their turf.
The connection of fashion to organized crime is one of the revelations that makes Gomorrah a fresh and shocking gangster film. Dealing drugs and selling designer dresses are not related industries but the implication is that the Camorra is so widespread that their influence is felt in all aspects of this culture. It's a chilling perspective on contemporary Italian society and that's where a lot of the power of this film stems from. It also helps that the film is so exciting in its look and narrative construction. Garrone paces each story just right and intertwines the separate plotlines with equal weight.
The performances are very strong across the board. Imparato and Cantalupo exhibit dignity and humanity in their roles as older men doing their best to live under the circumstances. Servillo shines as a charismatic villain. The young actors give such natural performances that you can believe they come from these corrupted neighborhoods. Marco and Ciro have perhaps the showiest roles as two idiots who don't realize they're playing way out of their league.
The high definition video presentation of Gomorrah: Criterion Collection (Blu-Ray), 1080p resolution using the AVC codec, is solid but the deliberately visual style of the movie itself makes this title one you're less likely to show off on your HD monitor. The image is clean and sharp with a hint of very fine film grain present. Even when scenes are shot dark or in silhouette, the deep shadows retain image detail. Exteriors lit by sunlight are bright without blooming and colors are saturated while maintaining a natural tone. The bright blues in the tanning salon and the reds in the strip club are well rendered without any bleeding.
Those are all marks in favor of the video transfer but the cinematography itself has a somber, gritty atmosphere in keeping with the narrative tone. The housing project looks like a bombed out parking garage with its long, filthy concrete corridors. The cinematography also favors scenes with a very shallow depth of field so that subjects close to the camera are in sharp focus and the other elements in frame quickly blur into the background. This is perfectly fine as a stylistic choice by the filmmakers but the blurry backgrounds don't look any better in HD. Certainly, there is something gained by the higher resolution image but the improvements won't appear as obvious leaps over the standard definition transfer.
The DTS-HD 5.1 Surround audio mix is very good. The dialogue is clear and the environmental effects are well positioned in the surround channels when they're engaged. I would have preferred a little more bass presence in certain scenes but it's there most of the time without drawing attention to the low-end sound effects.
Criterion gives Gomorrah its customary treatment of excellent supplemental materials. The extras appearing on the Blu-ray edition are the same as those on the Criterion DVD but the segments that originated in standard definition are presented here in 1080i resolution. It doesn't make a huge difference as the interviews are standard talking head footage and the deleted scenes still look rough.
The hour-long featurette "Five Stories" is a behind the scenes look at the production. Rather than the electronic press kit-style packaging, this making-of documentary plays more like selections from a video diary. A large portion of time is taken up with the finished clips that appear in the film but you also see the alternate takes and varied line readings. The best part of this documentary is seeing the director at work with his cast to achieve natural performances.
Director Matteo Garrone sits down for a 22-minute interview where he talks about his approach to the material, working with the actors and shooting on location in dangerous neighborhoods. Toni Servillo, who plays the waste disposal manager, offers his thoughts on the film in a 14-minute interview. In a separate featurette, actors Servillo, Imparato and Cantalupo provide introductions to their characters. This segments feels like material intended for the EPK but it's actually valuable insight from the actors that helps fill in the personalities of their characters.
Author Roberto Saviano talks at length about his book and its translation to the screen in a 43-minute interview. While this segment is visually uninteresting, it contains some really good back-story information. Saviano elaborates on his research into the Camorra including the real stories of the high-fashion tailor and Italy's toxic waste scandal.
The 16-page booklet includes an essay by critic Chuck Stephens. Six deleted scenes and the trailer round out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie opens with multiple killings at a tanning salon. This scene references a power struggle within the clan but this bigger picture story about the workings of the Camorra isn't explicitly picked up in the five main plotlines. Totò's story comes closest to dealing with this thread but when it comes up, it isn't easy to understand what's at stake and who the main players are. Since it doesn't receive direct attention, the development of the gang rivalries will be vague, if not incomprehensible, for first time viewers.
Gomorrah is a bold and exciting crime movie. The Criterion Collection makes it all the more relevant by supplying an excellent selection of background material. The audio-video presentation on this Blu-ray Disc is very good but I'm not sure the movie itself demands to be seen in HD. However, since Criterion continues to set their DVDs and Blu-ray Discs at the same price point, it's a no-brainer that you should go for the high definition option if you're already equipped.
There are lots of sins to be witnessed in Gomorrah but the filmmakers
and Criterion are definitely not guilty.
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