Check that omerta bullshit at the door. This is all about the bottom line.
The Camorra is an organized crime family that functions as a de facto national corporation in Italy. Nearly as diversified as General Electric, their corporate interests include illegal drugs, construction, high fashion, and waste disposal. Certainly the Mafia in America has been associated with some of these businesses as well (one of my very Italian uncles was "in construction") but the sheer sweep of the Camorra's influence is breathtaking, making it a tough task for any filmmaker trying to tell their story. Fortunately, Matteo Garrone's complex, pragmatic "Gomorrah" is up to the challenge.
The film begins with a typically glamorized genre set-piece where mobsters chilling out in tanning booths are gunned down Fredo-style, but Garrone quickly steps away from slick sensationalism. In the film the Camorra is like a plague that envelops the countryside and its characters are either the twisted carriers or the crippled, semi-conscious infected.
The victims are shown at various stages of the disease. We meet young Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) just before his initial exposure, a grim initiation ritual in which barely teenage boys are dressed in clunky bulletproof vests and shot point blank to prove they're tough enough to hang with the cool guys. Slightly older and at a slightly more advanced stage of infection are wannabe teenagers Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (anagrammable Marco Macor). The disease has already reached their brains and the two imbeciles run around constantly re-enacting their favorite scenes from "Scarface" and shooting off guns they found in a secret cache, a secret they will soon wish they hadn't stumbled upon.
The Camorra's not just for kids. Much older fashion designer Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) works at a Camorra-controlled factory. A straight-up family man and hard worker, he is about to be pulled into a power struggle between the Camorra and a rival business group. Joining him in the Camorra's senior circuit is permanently scarred survivor Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato.) A middle management grunt charged with collecting rent from one of the Camorra's investment properties, he has just enough responsibility to feel important, but not enough to keep him from being fully fungible.
Representing the carriers is sleazy suit Franco (Tony Servillo, also the star of "Il Divo"), a higher-up whose duties are still rather prosaic. Along with his young assistant Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), he scouts out locations for the corporation's waste management wing, searching for another site where the Camorra can destroy the country with the literal toxic by-product it peddles in tandem with its systematic poisoning of society and government.
At this point, I promise not to labor the disease metaphor any further.
Garrone's kaleidoscopic structure is inspired by the Roberto Saviano novel on which the film is based. Saviano spent years researching the Camorra from all angles and actually included many more stories in his book which Garrone whittled down for a more manageable two-hour rendition. While the Camorra has been written about extensively, Saviano's detailed indictment of the crime empire earned him unwanted attention and he has spent the last few years under state protection. Saviano's persecution didn't prevent (and more likely helped) both the book and film to commercial success in Italy.
"Gomorrah" unfolds as an epic tragedy told on an individual level. We realize pretty quickly that the poor fools Ciro and Marco aren't likely to have a pretty ending, but the drama hinges on the fates of the three characters not yet fully enmeshed in the web, young Totò and Roberto and older Pasquale. For Pasquale, it's a classic escape quest. For the young men, it's more a test of character. Their mutual reactions to the romantic pull of life in the Camorra, an imagined romantic world propagated by television and movies but not this movie, provide the stark dramatic contrast that gives the film an extra kick and makes more than a crime exposé.
Though relentlessly grim, the film has its share of dark humor. In one tragicomic sequence, Franco, unable to find willing adult laborers, hires pre-teen boys to drive his waste trucks. They need wood blocks under their fit to reach the tires and they display a joy born of blissful ignorance as they get to tool around a big pit in their big rigs. Pasquale's attempt to appreciate Chinese food (just watch the movie) also provides an endearing interlude amidst the misery.
The film's summation occurs when Franco receives a basket of peaches from a grateful farmer. He kisses her and thanks her playing the role of gentleman to superficial perfection. Shortly after he and Roberto drive off, he orders his young protégé to toss the bunch: "Can't you tell they stink?" Of course they do. The Camorra has dumped so much sludge in the area the fruit's been poisoned. Just like they've poisoned everything else.
The film is presented in a 2.35:1 wide-screen ratio.
Criterion has also released "Gomorrah" on SD.
The SD transfer was already strong, and the Blu-Ray transfer represents the expected upgrade in quality with a razor sharp image. The extra detail emphasizes the sordid locations and worn faces of this desolate film.
The Blu-Ray is presented in Dolby DTS-HD MA 5.1. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.
"Gomorrah: Five Short Stories" (2008, 62 min.) is a fly-on-the-wall style on-set documentary following Garrone at work with his actors and showing some of the real locations used in the film. No interviews here, just observational footage. I thought it would have been interesting as a 20 minute featurette, but at near feature-length it didn't hold my attention. Directed by Melania Cacucci.
The most interesting feature on the disc is an interview with Roberto Saviano, author of the book on which the film is based. Saviano has been in protective custody because of threats from the Camorra, so it's even more valuable to hear him speak at length about the crime organization. This 43-minute interview shows Saviano to be very sharp.
The disc also offers three interviews, all recorded in Rome in July 2009 for the Criterion Collection: director Matteo Garrone (22 min.), actor Tony Servillo (14 min.) and an interview with other actors from the film (10 min.)
There are also six Deleted Scenes (13 min. total) and a Trailer.
The 16-page insert booklet includes an essay by critic Chuck Stephens.
The use of multiple perspectives enables Garrone to portray the all-encompassing nature of the Camorra. From kids on up to adults, recruits to career nobodies to high muck-a-mucks, everyone is either involved or at risk. There's nothing cool or stylish about this equivalent to the Mafia. They're just dirty businessmen out to make a buck and like the most egregious multi-national corporations they don't give a damn who or what they destroy in the process.
Criterion bills itself as "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films." "Gomorrah" represents the start of a renewed focus on contemporary cinema. "Gomorrah" had a limited release in America in February of this year. Other recent releases scheduled to come out soon are Arnaud Desplechin's "A Christmas Tale," Steven Soderbergh's "Che," Steve McQueen's "Hunger," and Gotz Spielmann's "Revanche" which only received a belated American release just last month.
Criterion has also released "Gomorrah" on SD.
Both the Blu-Ray and the SD currently list at the same full retail price. The Blu-Ray represents the usual improvements from the SD though with Criterion the SD transfer is already of high quality. At the same price point, I guess the decision is an easy one.