Sunday 24 July 2011

From the archive: "Gomorrah"

There's no denying Gomorrah's authenticity. Within days of its release, it was reported that Roberto Saviano, author of the Mob expose upon which the film is based, had gone into hiding after threats were made on his life, and that Bernadino Terracciano, who plays a supporting role, had been arrested following a crackdown on Mob-related activity. Matteo Garrone's film is a bleak but often brilliant documentary-like study of life in the Scampia region of Sicily, focusing on one housing estate run by the Camorra, Europe's biggest criminal organisation. On the inside, the estate is a solid concrete mass of staircases and underpasses, shadows and getaway routes: no place, visibly, for the uninitiated. From the outside, these pyramid-like, whitewashed flats rather resemble the Mayan sacrificial temples seen in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, and similar rivers of blood will come to be spilled on their steep steps.

Like the estate, the film is a self-contained, self-regulating structure: Garrone plunges the viewer in at the deep end, and expects them - like anybody else here - to fend for themselves. A few pointers might help. We watch the initiation of those teenagers who want into the Camorra, to indulge their Tony Montana fantasies; conversely, we see an ageing paymaster, employed by the Mob to pay off non-affiliated residents for their silence, who wants out. There is the "respectable" businessman in his beige linen suit (Toni Servillo, from The Consequences of Love) who holds up the waste-management end of the operation, dumping industrial gloop wherever, whatever the cost to the locals' health; and, representing the Mob's creative arm, a tailor who undercuts his rivals and works his low-paid staff through the night to meet orders for leading Italian fashion houses.

What's clever (and difficult) about the film is that, while we're given some sense of the structure, we're constantly denied the bigger picture. TV's The Sopranos was nothing if not clear in its delineation of the prevailing power scheme: at any given point in its duration, we knew where Tony, Christopher, Paulie Walnuts et al. stood in the pecking order. Garrone's film, on the other hand, stands as a genuinely organised picture about organised crime, in that we - like the lowly footsoldiers we see the Camorra recruit - are never quite allowed access to this Mob's higher echelons: there's no logical flow of narrative information either upwards or down, and the story strands remain stubbornly distinct from one another.

As a consequence, we might add the film to 2008's long list of tough films for tough times (Hunger, Waltz with Bashir, less successfully Blindness), works that deny us obvious heroism and refuse easy closure. Some may be thrown by the lack of conventional authority figures or points of entry, characters we might easily identify with. A young lad called Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), far from his namesake in Cinema Paradiso, turns out to be a snitch who'll sell his neighbours out to be accepted by thugs; only a couple of the leading characters will emerge from the film alive, but even they will be outnumbered by the Camorra's nameless muscle, their future status shaky at best.

Yet by remaining detached in the middle of a bloodfeud, Gomorrah asserts its own morality, and by keeping clear heads, both Garrone and Saviano are better able to make links between the activity on one estate in the Sicilian suburbs and the wider world. Late on in the film, the tailor spots one of his dresses on television, being worn on the red carpet of the Venice film festival by none other than Scarlett Johansson; despite the presence of the cameras, the Camorra, it's clear, only get away with what they do because somebody somewhere turns a blind eye. (It is, incidentally, Miss Johansson's most striking screen appearance for several years; presumably she - or her people - signed off on this footage, thus inferring upon her some sort of guilt, or responsibility, by association.) Perhaps the filmmakers' greatest achievement is that the result never feels diagrammatic or censorious; this is, instead, a compelling, heavyweight drama that keeps you hooked even as it leaves you to the tricky business of counting the bodies being buried in the ground.

(November 2008)

Gomorrah screens on BBC2 this Tuesday night at 12.20am.

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