Five storylines fragment the pounding force of Matteo Garrone’s hotly anticipated adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s “Gomorrah,” his bestselling expose of Neapolitan crime. Utilizing a mesmerizing documentary style that studiously avoids glamorizing the horrors, Garrone cherrypicks episodes from Saviano’s muckraking tract, building to a chillingly matter-of-fact crescendo of violence, though interwoven tales tend to dissipate the full force of the criminal Camorra families’ insidious control. Released on 430 Italian screens amid predictions of boffo biz, “Gomorrah” will certainly make the international arthouse rounds, but auds familiar with the book will be better equipped to follow the multiple narratives.
While the Sicilian Mafia has drawn the lion’s share of media attention over the years, it’s the Camorra families of Naples who have really created an oligarchy of power and violence, controlling lives and entire economies not just in Italy but worldwide — their profits are estimated at over $233 billion per year. This money comes not just from expected areas like drugs and waste disposal but high-end fashion and pirated knockoffs, whose raw materials arrive from China and are channelled exclusively through Camorra businesses.
Garrone and his five co-scripters (including Saviano) fictionalize these elements and show how the Camorra’s vice-like grip on the region infects everyone, creating a permanent miasma of fear that terrorizes some while proving impossibly seductive to others. Chief among the latter are children like Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), just 13 but eager to start on the ladder that commences with drug pushing and ends in regional control or death.
Slightly older teens Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro, nicknamed Piselli (Ciro Petrone) are obsessed with Brian De Palma’s “Scarface” — the kind of brutal but alluring gangster pic Garrone studiously avoids emulating. Keen to form their own two-man operation independent of the Camorra families, they’re like a couple of kids playing cowboys, blindly unaware of the dangers.
Nondescript, accountant-like Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is the mob’s money-runner, assigned to deliver Camorra funds to loyal households whose members are either dead or doing time. As rival factions start a brutal war, Don Ciro can no longer hide anonymously behind his routine, and fidelity becomes ever more uncertain, and dangerous.
Bigshot Franco (Toni Servillo), a cocky businessman in rumpled suits, hires Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) as an assistant to help fulfill toxic waste disposal contracts with rich enterprises in the north, dumping the poisonous goods in the districts around Campania. The last of the storylines features master tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), an expert at the fine detailing required for the Camorra’s valuable fashion sidelines.
Adapting Saviano’s book to the screen was no small task, and keeping track of all the strands can be challenging for those unfamiliar with the multiple levels explicated with mindboggling detail in the expose. Disconnected scenes picking up on details in the book are told in a form of shorthand that don’t always succeed in conveying their full significance. In particular, the internecine struggles for power within the different families, which led to a bloody civil war, are kept at a grass-roots level, leaving viewers uncertain as to who’s affiliated with whom, or why there’s a secessionist split in the first place.
But Garrone is clearly more interested in how the average inhabitant becomes drawn into the cycle of corruption and violence. Wads of cash regularly turn up in “Gomorrah,” but the trappings of wealth are nowhere to be seen: no fancy villas, no flashy jewels or expensive meals, since the Camorra’s dough never really trickles down to the foot soldiers.
Garrone makes expert use of the dingy cement housing projects of the Neapolitan suburb of Scampia, full of crumbling causeways that feel like prison interiors and offer as much hope as the inside of death row.
Pic’s most striking element is the way it merges fiction with a dispassionate docu style far removed from the fetid and putrefying analogies Saviano used to convey his disgust. Garrone worked with this sort of slice-of-life realism to some degree in earlier works such as “Guests” and even “The Embalmer,” but here he’s found a way of expressing outrage while maintaining a cold gaze. Perfs are unanimously in keeping with this lack of grandstanding, not just from superb thespers like Servillo and Imparato but the youngsters as well.
Lensing is bleak, expertly using the spaces of the housing projects with their deadening, almost inhuman angles and dark interiors incapable of protecting the residents from the overall feeling of helplessness. Whereas Garrone’s earlier films used incidental music by Banda Osiris, here he maintains the docu feel by including contempo pop songs played by the characters themselves, all employing a disco beat that highlights the incongruity of teens hanging out one minute and shot at the next.