Italian director Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, about the Neapolitan crime family that runs southern Italy, paints a violent, squalid picture of organized crime that's far from the courtly old world code of The Godfather or the slick cool of Goodfellas.
Based on an encyclopedic "nonfiction novel" by journalist Roberto Saviano, the film distills the vast scope of the source into five stories: Totò is a young boy who wants to trade delivering groceries for life as a foot soldier; Don Ciro is an aging bagman afraid to take sides when a bloody clan war breaks out; Marco and Ciro are a pair of dopey wannabe gangsters who idolize Scarface and think they can take on the clan; Pasquale is a master tailor who makes designer knockoffs; and Roberto and Franco (played by Tony Servillo, who won Best Actor for the role at the European film awards) are traffickers in toxic waste, filling abandoned quarries with chemicals and poisoning the land itself.
The five stories unfold alongside each other but never quite intersect, each showing a different aspect of the Camorra's stranglehold on Campania, where their control makes life brutal, dirty, and often short. At first, as the stories come at you, it can be bewildering. Who these people are and how they're connected is left implicit. The director doesn't directly lead you anywhere, and there's no overarching narrative to tie up the different storylines, just a slow, deliberate, documentary-style look at a handful of lives -- which means it won't be for everyone.
But great performances (many from people Garrone found living in the tenements he used as locations) and beautiful cinematography, with lingering shots of slums and trash heaps, make for a dirty realism that leaves a powerful impression of life in a corrupt, dying city where no one thinks to question lawlessness.
The extras include a 60-minute making-of documentary; interviews with the director, actors, and Saviano; the theatrical trailer; and six deleted scenes, in all 13 minutes of unused footage that's far more interesting than usual. Rather than alternate takes, these are mostly new scenes that were cut out of the movie, and one in particular, an aerial shot of kids picking through mountains of burning trash, is a killer.
The Camorra are still very much in power, and Saviano has had to live under police protection since his book was published in 2006. And while the film doesn't moralize, title cards before the end credits lay out some of the statistics: the Camorra have killed more people than any other criminal organization in Europe, more than 4,000 in the last 30 years, or one every three days; their open-air drug market is the largest in the world; and cancer rates have gone up 20% in areas poisoned by their illegal dumping.
Given the patience to let it unfold, Gomorrah is a striking, oddly beautiful portrait of a toxic way of life, which never romanticizes violence and shows the end of the line for those who do: a bulldozed grave in a vacant lot.
Gomorrah (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] is available now.