Fear and violence in the heartland of the Naples Mafia
Think of gangsters in the movies and you probably come up with images of the Mafia crime dynasty in the Godfather movies, of Al Pacino strutting in a flashy white suit in Scarface or of Scorsese’s brash mobsters in Goodfellas. There’s blood-soaked violence in these films, of course, but the brutality usually comes with a giddy rush of excitement and its perpetrators tend to give off a whiff of dangerous glamour.
There is nothing remotely cool or charismatic, however, about the mobsters who feature in the stunning new Italian crime movie Gomorrah, which depicts the squalid workings of organised crime in the suburbs of Naples with matter-of-fact realism and none of the bravura flourishes you usually get in Hollywood’s films about the Mafia.
Recently nominated as Italy’s entrant for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars, Gomorrah is based on a bestselling book by Roberto Saviano, who has been living under police protection since the publication of his ‘non-fiction novel’. The title is a pun on the Biblical city of sin (twinned with Sodom) and on the name of the Camorra, the Neapolitan crime network, a century older than the Sicilian Mafia, which makes more money and kills more people than any other criminal organisation in the world.
Written and directed by Matteo Garrone, the film shows how the Camorra, or ‘la Sistema’ (the System) exerts its terrifying hold on Naples and the surrounding region by weaving together five stories taken from Saviano’s book. The subjects of these strands aren’t the leading mafiosi but rather people caught up, for the most part, in the dealings of the lower reaches of the underworld in the neighbourhood known as Scampìa.
Don Ciro is a middle-aged, cautious accountant who scurries about the warren-like passages of the district’s huge 1960s housing blocks, known as ‘Vele’ or Sails because of their shape, in order to deliver funds to the families of jailed gang members.
Totò is a 13-year-old boy who gets initiated into one of the clans and finds himself on the opposite side to his best friend.
Marco and Ciro are a pair of cocky delinquents who fancy themselves as criminal big shots and model themselves on Pacino’s anti-hero in Scarface. “I’m Tony Montana”, they brag before they get their inevitable comeuppance.
Roberto, the nearest the film has to a moral compass, is a university graduate who gets taken under the wing of a suave, linen-suit wearing businessman who deals in the dumping of toxic waste (one of the Camorra’s most lucrative enterprises).
And Pasquale is a skilled tailor who works for a Mafia-protected business producing haute couture fashion but gets tempted by an offer to pass on his know-how to Chinese rivals.
Gomorrah shows us a crime-riddled society where life can be snuffed out at any moment. In this respect, it resembles the Brazilian film City of God, which portrayed ferocious teenage drug-gangs in one of Rio de Janeiro’s teeming slums. But whereas City of God director Fernando Meireilles aped the energy and bravado of Scorsese with jump cuts, freeze frames and split screen effects, Gomorrah is closer to the mood of Alan Clarke’s 1988 BBC TV film Elephant, which observed a series of random sectarian killings in Northern Ireland with cool detachment.
The violence in Gomorrah is shocking, but there’s none of the exhilaration you find in films like Scarface or Goodfellas or City of God. Instead, what you get is a terrible, gut-clenching sense of clammy dread.