Grotesque Syndicate

You'll learn a thing or two from this bleak, difficult movie about the other Italian mafia

One thing the movies have taught me is that Italians are violent, horrible people who will "whack" you if you "rat" on them or serve them "watery marinara sauce."

I'm glad I learned this in the cinema, because growing up around Italians, I never noticed this sort of behavior, but now, forewarned, I am careful to never disrespect my Aunt Rosalie or Uncle Gaspar, lest I wind up buried in a makeshift grave behind their modest suburban homes.

Gomorrah is not only about violent, horrible Italians; it's also by (presumably violent and horrible) Italians, and stars (one would assume: violent and horrible) Italians. It tells the story of Italy's other mafia, the Camorra. Most American-made movies about the evils of Italianess focus on the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian crime syndicate. But Gomorrah makes the Sicilians of The Godfather and Goodfellas look like chipper English school lads skipping in a field of daisies as they recite Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

Partly, it's because of the bleakness of the setting: Everyplace looks like it could give you tetanus. Crime bosses wander through postwar architecture at its worst, with glum concrete walls and dilapidated, bridge-like walkways that probably looked futuristic when freshly made. The countryside is dusty and desolate, and mostly serves as a repository for the toxic waste that the Camorra take in as one of their main sources of income. Even the hospitals look septic, with peeling paint and unreadable graffiti on the dirty walls.

The cinematography matches this unpleasantness. There's only one really interesting shot: an overhead of a man stepping through bodies. It's fluid, eerie and gorgeously composed. Otherwise, it's all shaky handheld, with too many close-ups, though not at the expense of information. In fact, this is almost pure informational cinematography: Every shot conveys something essential to the story, but usually in an unbeautiful manner, and in such a way that I felt myself wanting to just move the camera a few feet to the left and tilt it down so as to improve the composition. But I guess that's the idea: Gomorrah is not about how glorious the mob is, but how grotesque.

The film presents five otherwise unrelated stories about the Camorra. It starts with a drug deal. Now, as the drug deal commences, you're probably thinking: Will this drug deal go right? Or will this be the rare cinematic representation of a drug deal gone wrong? I won't give it away, but the two young men who ride off with the drugs manage to piss off the local Camorra chiefs and spend the rest of the movie hoping to avoid the Camorra tradition of greeting people with bullets to the brain instead of gentle hugs.

Then the there's the story of the 13-year-old boy who wants to join the gang (a bad sign is that the initiation ceremony involves getting shot); the dapper don who dumps toxic waste at locations that are conveniently near homes, schools and nunneries; the tailor who foolishly gets involved with the Camorra and doesn't realize that the involvement means he should always carry his needle so he can sew his wounds up; and the strangely touching story of Don Ciro, a mild-mannered man who carries cash to families who've supported his bosses.

It's Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) who winds up traipsing through corpses, which is hard on him, because his job description was all about making people happy, and dead people aren't happy people.

But that's the problem with a mafia movie: It's hard to make them lovable. Francis Ford Coppola got around that by stressing loyalty and family, and keeping much of the seedy stuff off camera. This made his mobsters into semi-respectable figures, and made for a great, if misleading, movie. Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone, living a little closer to the action, has no such respect for his subjects and treats them like the scumbags they are. (Note to editor: If you don't hear from me for a few weeks, you can find my will in the blood-stained envelope next to my computer.)

As a result, there are very few likable characters in the film. There's also a general sense of revulsion toward the environment and even innocent bystanders that makes Gomorrah hard to watch at times. Plus, it's a deeply complex film, and unless you're paying attention, you're likely to get lost.

So I don't recommend it as a light alternative to Paul Blart: Mall Cop. But if you're willing to put in the effort, it's not without rewards. It definitely has some exhilarating moments, and it offers a glimpse at a crime syndicate that's little-known in the United States, but which controls a large chunk of the murder, drug trafficking and general stupidity in Europe. I'd give it a meh-plus, with added hmm for the educational value, and about two doses of ooh! for a couple of nice scenes.

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