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‘Gomorrah’ is a fascinating look at mob

“Gomorrah” upends everything you think you know about the mob, and mob movies.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two cocky Italian teenagers run around their dilapidated Naples neighborhood, melodramatically riffing on “Scarface” lines to each other: “Now it has to be ours, the whole world. Miami, all of it.”

They’re certainly no more over-the-top than Al Pacino. But this is the closest director and co-writer Matteo Garrone comes to any sort of traditional, Hollywoodized depiction of mob life in “Gomorrah.”

It’s appropriate, though, that Brian De Palma’s bloody epic is the source of inspiration for wannabe thugs Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone). That film, and the genre in general, are so entrenched in contemporary pop culture that they’ve become a source of self-parody.

That’s what’s so compelling about “Gomorrah”: It upends everything you think you know about the mob, and mob movies. (The title is an intentional play on the Camorra crime organization, which reportedly has been responsible for the deaths of 4,000 people over the past 30 years.)

In adapting the 2006 book by Roberto Saviano — which has forced the author, now 29, into hiding — Garrone has made a movie that’s so defiantly minimalist, you’d think it was a documentary. Through hand-held camera, natural light and music that’s only playing on a radio or in a club, it’s as if Garrone has made an Italian film in the Danish Dogma tradition. Even elements you’d expect to see given the subject matter — a shootout, a trip to a strip club — are without glamour.

Innovative and daring, to be sure, and that’s simultaneously the movie’s greatest strength and its weakness. For a while, it’s hard to tell who’s who among the five different story lines — difficult to determine why they matter and how they’re connected, if at all — and about halfway in you may find yourself realizing that you’re not even sure of all the characters’ names.

Besides Marco and Ciro, who are so brazen, you know it’s only a matter of time before they cross the wrong guy, there’s 13-year-old Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), who delivers groceries to housewives in the projects but longs to prove he’s ready for more intense assignments.

On the other end of the spectrum, Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is a longtime and faithful soldier who brings money to the families who have clan members in prison, but as retaliations heat up, he realizes he wants out.

In between, there are smooth businessman Franco (Toni Servillo) and his right-hand man, Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), who make a living off illegally dumping toxic waste, and Pasquale the tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo), who crafts couture gowns but realizes he can earn more money by training competing Chinese clothing manufacturers.

Garrone’s reasoning makes sense: “Gomorrah” is more about the dangerous and powerful machinery, which touches every imaginable facet of society, than about the individuals who inhabit it. They’re replaceable cogs, they’ll come and go, while the organization will live on and only grow stronger. But the approach does keep you off guard.

At the same time, the silence and restrained pacing make you wonder what fresh horror is in store, and when something dramatic does happen — a shooting, a beating, a car crash — it has an even greater impact.

Patience pays off in “Gomorrah,” if not for its trapped residents, at least for the audience.