Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.
One of the complaints about films like The Godfather Trilogy, Goodfellas and Scarface is the glorification of crime. Many times, the people who perpetrate terrible crimes are portrayed as noble, honorable, even worthy of emulation. Yes, I’m including Scarface in this list; I’ve had too many students tell me how much they like that movie, and even admire the life of Tony Montana for me to think otherwise. The old noir element of crime always coming back to haunt those who commit it doesn’t always come true in the more modern gangster film. What a particular element of society sees instead is that for a few, crime pays, at least for a time. No one thinks of himself as the guy getting hacked up with a chainsaw in the bathtub—everybody sees himself as Tony Montana or Don Corleone.
Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra (sometimes spelled Gomorrah) takes a different, much more realistic look at the world of organized crime, a world that extends from the lowest slums to high fashion. Five individual stories, only loosely connected due to their connection to the criminal world, are told here. Each of the stories is brutal and despairing in its own way.
Because the stories are only loosely connected and don’t really unite at any point, it’s easier to discuss them individually. So in no real order, here are the five stories:
Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a young boy who delivers groceries for his mother. He witnesses a mass bust by the police, and takes the opportunity to pick up a stash of drugs and a pistol and return it to the gang. He’s initiated in a terrifying ceremony and starts running with this gang, who are threatened by another criminal enterprise. After a drive-by takes out one of his comrades, Toto is used to help extract vengeance on the others. The lesson that Toto learns through all of this is that he doesn’t have a right to think—only a right to do as he’s told and hope he survives.
Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) works in waste removal. His boss (Toni Servillo), who has mob connections, cuts corners by dumping toxic waste illegally in quarries that are no longer being used. An accident involving toxic waste causes a truck driver to be doused in toxic chemicals. The other truck drivers refuse to keep working, so the boss brings in kids to drive the trucks instead, which causes a great deal of stress to Roberto, who can’t condone putting young children in the path of such danger.
Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) works for the main crime family as a go-between and a distributor of money to those loyal families who have people in prison. He’s assaulted by members of a rival gang faction, and he agrees to defect to their side and help them by betraying his former comrades in return for his life, knowing that this new gang doesn’t need a man to transport money. Like Roberto, Don Ciro is faced with the decision of determining what he can life with.
Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is a fashion designer working for a man who has ties to the local mob family. Pasquale also takes a night job training Chinese workers who are competing with the mob, which requires that he be transported secretly to and from their factory. The mob finds out that something is up, and assassinates the Chinese bosses, leaving Pasquale in the position of losing one employer and wondering if his other employer knows of his duplicity.
The fifth story is perhaps the most tragic. Two young men named Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) want to be gangsters, and want to run the show themselves rather than start out at the bottom of a gang; they essentially pretend to be Tony Montana, doing a lot of youthful posturing to each other. They start their careers by ripping off some local drug dealers, then manage to find out where one of the large gangs stashes weapons. They steal some of these to further their criminal career, but are eventually caught and must decide if they will do what they are told or fight back.
Gomorra is incredibly bleak. It’s evident within the first five minutes of each story that there will be no happy endings here. In this world, life is the cheapest thing around—it has no value. Each person’s life is worth only what he or she can do, and it can be taken in an instant for no reason. Of all the stories, it is the one of Marco and Ciro that (to me) appeared to be the one most likely to end as badly as possible. Toto’s story also seemed particularly tragic because of all of our main characters, he is the one who still seems to have the ability to opt out of the life he sees, at least to a certain point.
Where the film is most effective is in the use of violence. It happens suddenly and without warning, just as it does in the real world. There is no gearing up for battle, no strapping on of weapons. Instead, people die from assaults out of the blue, in the middle of conversation. Throughout the film, there is no warning for when something truly terrible is going to happen, which makes the violence consistently shocking from the first time it happens to the very end.
Gomorra is a sobering film, the sort that the people who admire Tony Montana and Don Corleone should watch as a more realistic depiction of this criminal life they seem to idolize. But I know from experience that most of the people who truly should watch a film like Gomorra are the same ones who would dismiss it or ignore the lessons it teaches. This is not a glorification of organized crime, but a pointed expose, a film that induces remorse and anger more than anything else.
This is a moving film, and a powerful one. Fantastic.
Why to watch Gomorra: Real organized crime.
Why not to watch: Real organized crime is not pretty.