Thursday, March 19, 2009
In the film Scarface , Al Pacino's Cuban mobster Tony Montana faces his attackers with the challenge: "Okay you wanna play rough, I'll play rough. Say Hello to my little friend." Then he opens fire with everything he's got. Tony Montana may have met a violent end in Scarface but in death he's become an icon idolized the world over by gangster wannabes.
In the film Gommora , a pair of Italian youths re-enact a scene from Scarface in an abandoned building. Each proclaiming he's "Numero Uno Tony Montana," and pretending to fire off rounds of ammunition. That scene is important in defining the relationship between film and the real world. In his book Gomorra , author Roberto Saviano notes that "it's not cinema that's influenced by reality, it's reality that's influenced by cinema." But filmmaker Matteo Garrone attempts to correct that dynamic with his screen adaptation of Saviano's book. Garrone avoids the romance of The Godfather films and the seductive glamor of Scarface to deliver a gritty, contemporary look at the crime syndicate of Naples known as the Camorra and simply accepted as "the System." The Camorra infiltrates every aspect of life from the drugs sold in apartment complexes to large scale construction contracts and big corporate deals. As depicted in the film, the Camorra is omnipresent and a simple fact of life.
Garrone (working with a quartet of screenwriters) pares down Saviano's massive expose into a multi-stranded plot of intersecting narratives and characters. First we have the teenage boys whose cockiness and idolization of Tony Montana lead them to believe that can defy the Camorra. Then there's an even younger boy - thirteen-year-old Toto - whose initiation into the mob includes getting shot at point blank range by one of the mobsters. Fortunately they provide him with a makeshift bulletproof vest for protection. Moving up the food chain we then meet a money runner stuck in the middle of internal mob fighting. There's also a toxic waste distributor tied to the mob with plans to badly dispose of tons of hazardous material.
Pasquale and the Chinese workers in Gomorra (IFC)
The most poignant of the five intersecting tales involves Pasquale, a dress cutter tied to the mob who tries to make some extra money teaching the rival Chinese a few tricks. Pasquale is deeply flattered and honored by the warm reception he gets from the Chinese workers yet his actions brand him as a defector in the eyes of the Camorra and he must therefore be punished.
While Hollywood has been more enamored with Sicilian mob stories the Neopolitan crime families provide fascinating material. The Camorra sees itself as a giant, profit driven, multi-national corporation with tentacles reaching beyond the local Naples economy.
Garrone takes a journalistic approach to assembling his story, preferring to use highly illustrative examples rather than a more carefully constructed linear narrative. So the film jumps around from drug trafficking to the world of high fashion to the dumping of toxic waste to back room politics and public assassinations. But each anecdote proves vivid and telling. Take the wannabe Scarface teens. Garrone shows them in a desolate wetland, stripped down to their underwear and wildly shooting stolen weapons, one of which has some kind grenade launcher built in.
The wannabe Tony Montanas in Gomorra (IFC)
This stark, striking image conveys not only their unfocused, dangerous energy but also their ultimate disposability. Meanwhile, young Toto eagerly and silently takes in everything about the mob operation. Garrone shows how this crime system is able to perpetuate itself since there's always a new generation ready to step in, and well versed in how to keep the machine running.
Visually, Gomorra looks like a pumped up documentary. It moves fast and with energy yet manages to avoid glamorizing the violence it depicts. The sprawling narrative probably plays better in Naples where a lot of this information is either reported on or simply known by the locals. American audiences may feel like they are constantly playing catch up as Garrone piles on layers of information. But he's a confident storyteller whose vivid images pull us deeper and deeper into his story with a riveting attention to detail.
Gomorra is rated R and is in Italian and Mandarin with English subtitles.
Companion viewing: Scarface, The Godfather, Rocco and his Brothers, Goodfellas