Ever since The Godfather first took hold of the American imagination, Hollywood movies have tended to romanticize the mafia, cranking up the moral anguish and making the violence thrillingly operatic. Actual Italians are having none of it, apparently. Based on a best-selling novel-cum-exposé by Roberto Saviano and directed by Matteo Garrone, Gomorrah, which won the Grand Prix (basically second prize) at Cannes last year, takes a disturbingly dispassionate look at the quotidian activities of the Camorra, as the multitude of individually run mob families in Naples and Caserta are collectively known. Cutting to and fro among five separate stories that never dovetail or overlap—no Babel-esque coincidences here—the film slowly and patiently assembles a vast, dizzying mosaic that examines the Camorra’s effect on every aspect of Neapolitan life, as seen from every rung on the region’s socioeconomic ladder. From goofy teenage Tony Montana wannabes firing automatic weapons in their underwear, to the timid fellow who pays the relatives of dead soldiers, to the murderous muscle necessary to fashion a gown for Scarlett Johansson to wear on the red carpet, nothing is overlooked or sensationalized.
Fans of HBO’s The Wire will recognize and appreciate Gomorrah’s objective and method. Thing is, though, for all its undeniable brilliance, The Wire took five or six episodes just to get rolling in its first season, and that’s twice as much time as Garrone has to work with here. Consequently, a lot of this material feels sketchy, skeletal, undernourished. Of the five stories, only one—concerning a proud tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo, superbly weary) who sells out to a rival firm of Chinese immigrants—manages to transcend its schematic function and grab you on a visceral level. Furthermore, Garrone and Saviano’s stubborn refusal to contextualize anything, while admirable in theory, can result in serious confusion for the ignorant American viewer—I had to log some time on Wikipedia afterward, trying to figure out just what the deal was with various turf wars that get a lot of screen time but are never remotely explained. Memorable images abound, but the entomological approach and general absence of humanity—no Bunk or Bubbles here—make Gomorrah something of a grim slog. Really, the pointed title tells you everything you need to know.