Sep 22, 2008

NYFF Review: On Gomorrah

By Evan Louison

Examination of the history of the world of crime, at least as represented in cinema, brings us to a number of basic conclusions: There is elegance where there is violence and danger, and there is heartbreak beyond that elegance. The films we live and breathe with, the criminal characters that we find have become burned deep into our linings when we walk back into daylight from the theatre we met them in, these are the cause for great nostalgia and great revision, of memory and history's lessons.

We choose, more often and not, likely on some unborn level in our conscience, to ignore the careless disregard with which these mobsters perform even their most admirable, honorable actions in a story told on celluloid. We make a choice to suspend our beliefs, step into their sunglasses and tailored suits, hold their pistols in our grip and pull their triggers with our own digits, to allow imagination to run its course. It is to never have to fall victim in a story to the reasoning our collective conscience and cumulative educations have made us so prone and vulnerable to, one of rationalizing our fantasies with the knowledge that while we dream of transgression, we are nothing like them.

Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone's sixth feature film, is a force of nature, full of undeniably earthshattering images and lessons that indict everything about this underworld with which certain segments of American, European, and Asian cinema has become so much the bedchild to. Named for one of the original twin cities which Lot's wife chose her status as a pillar of salt rather than forsake, it is a play on the vernacular title for one of the most powerful crime syndicates in the world, and more importantly in Italy, "the Camorra," or "System." Based in Naples and neighboring Caserta, with many far-reaching outstretched hands, its fingers fiddle with the world of drugs, haute culture imitation textiles, and toxic waste disposal (it is no longer a myth, nor a legend confined to New York and New Jersey, that the mob holds a monopoly on private garbage trucking companies). Its interlocking themes of individual moral dilemmas, (the stories, five of them, revolve yet rarely intertwine) all within this expertly weaved blanket, reveal the fundamental problems facing people who remain in an area where nowhere is safe from mafia influence ("You're either with us, or against us..." a character named Pitbull say. Sound familiar, Americanos?). Gomorrah captures a world of darkness in every day life, a hungry ghost ("the black hand" of Puzo's novels) devouring any substance or chance at sustenance in men, women, and their children no matter how young, amidst the gazebo cardgames, common kitchen plumbing crises, Epulsing tanning salons and roadside picnic areas that make up the fabric of these Neapolitan lives. In the end no one is innocent and no choice remains to be made but the morally ambiguous and complicitly deviant one.

The film's most nuanced story begins with Don Ciro, "il sottamarino", a money-carrier, dispersing payments to the families of dead or imprisoned Scamorra loyalists like clockwork, dealing with the everyday realities of his constituents and their all too common aches and pains, the most popular being that what Don Ciro brings is not enough. He is the patron pacifier of an entire community (mainly the Scampian suburban public housing complex where two of the stories take place), and not an easy player. Rather he carries his position with pride, until he is confronted in ambush with the seccessionist movement of Scampian thugs whose families have been turned against and tossed aside by the Scamorra. Try as he may, he cannot placate the violence in these men nor the vengeance heartbred in them by his very employers. The offering he can make to them is only to say, "I can do for you what I do for them..." The Scissionista replies: "We don't need money carriers... We want to score, get money, and kill..." Don Ciro replies he cannot help them there, to which his captor responds: "We shoot them and you carry the money...It's the same."

The only tale that coincides and parallels that of Don Ciro's is that of Toto. Toto at the age of 13 is kept busy in the Scampian apartments as a grocery delivery boy, but one who sees the joy of so much of the struggle of the men in power above him, the young men getting shot trying to emulate young men a little older than them and in turn the elders of the criminal world, that to deny its draw and hold on him seems impossible. It is his dream to live in the world of vulgar and fiery handed tempers, in the obscenity and the violently cultured sexes of his countrymen, in with his brothers steeped and splayed amongst fermented attitudes of masculine bravado. When initiation comes to pass, it is for a row of young cadets to stand before one of the Scamorran footsoldiers and his pistol, strapped into a kevlar vest and asked repeatedly if he is afraid, to which each child replies, "No...No...No..." until a bullet rips into him and lifts him from his feet before he can ponder if he means it. Toto replies "Si..." just once and is blasted off to the dirt floor of the construction site where the hazing takes place, like most of the film's settings, desolate, like most of its story and characters. Later he fingers the bruise above his heart where the bullet's gape might have been gingerly in the bathroom mirror and looks curious like a child examining his first wet dream.

The other stories are of different worlds but do not stand alone. We see the one of Marco and Ciro, two young troublemakers obsessed with getting themselves into hot water above their necks, as an evolution of where Toto could end up without conscienable thought or the mark of painful learning. "I'm Tony Montana!" they take turns in screaming across an abandoned parking garage with weapons in full display, weapons they uncover and steal by spying on the "old men" they make every effort to emulate. "You really looked like Scarface," Ciro tells Marco as they recline in an empty hot tub in their street clothes. "I go crazy for this shit," Marco replies when seemingly offered his first hit from a Mafioso with a wad of cash to rival any landlord. They show no fear and only foolishness in the face of a man making no secret of his aim to lure the boys to their deaths. These elders only wish to quell the nuisances they've become in all their unbridled youthful adventure. These boy only wish to score, get money, and kill.

In all the stories possess this quality: That of boys trying to be men, men trying to be kings, misguided minds hung and latched to the call of their desires and the splendor that power and security seems to promise them, A way out from the nothing they see all around them and the sorrow behind their mother's eyes, the eyes of their dead friends, all those at the mercy of illiteracy and the culture of literal, original mob mentality, regal as it may seem or pose to be. "Vaffanculo," one character says to another when he tells him he's out, he's quit, he wants no more. Those with an eye to that phrase's translation might presume that one already has done just that, if the bed of partners you've found yourself lying in requires you leave it, if only to save your own ass.