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Better Luck Gomorrah

By John Magary

Gomorrah, written and directed by Matteo Garrone (and screening Friday and Sunday at the New York Film Festival), is more panorama than story. Its landscape is the Camorra (“the System”), the brutal, all-devouring crime enterprise that dominates the Italian provinces of Naples and Caserta. The Camorra, we’re told in a press kit (and in an ominous, kind of superfluous title card at the film’s end), has been responsible for more than 4,000 deaths, and generates approximately 150 billion euros a year. Furthermore, we are told, it “has even bought shares in the reconstruction of the Twin Towers in New York City.” The System’s reach is far and unstoppable and oh-shit-happening-right-now-at-Ground-Zero, and Garrone lets the squelching gigantism of it all bully him into a vast, violent, strangely uninvolving structure.

Guns and Poses: A scene from Gomorrah, screening this weekend at the New York Film Festival (Photo: IFC Films)

There’s a money collector, a tailor, a 13-year-old fledgling, a 20-something fledgling, and a pair of rank dumbasses. For viewers of The Wire or The Sopranos, this kind of buckshot cross-cutting narrative -- the small-time morality tales of small-time hoods -- will be familiar. Garrone’s narrative approach, however, is boldly uninflected and fashionably resistant to synthesis. The stories don’t intersect, or really add up to much. Each character feels credible, and there’s the requisite bloody shock. It doesn’t glorify the life and thankfully resists the Tropical Electricity™ of City of God. And the film’s epically static non-structure clearly points to something: that the corruption on display here is so horrendously thorough that rooting it out is near impossible. There’s no Don Corleone here, no Family to pin. There’s just terminal disease. Late in the film, when a character breaks free with a roadside burst of righteous indignation -- the only explicit flare-up in the film, if memory serves -- our faith that he’ll remain free has been (understatement warning!) minimized.

So, it makes that point. But -- and this has been the case with more than a few films at this year’s Festival, Che immediately coming to mind -- it doesn’t strain to do much else. To walk away from such a sensitively observed film -- all 135 minutes of it -- thinking only, "Shit, Naples is really fucked," you can’t help but feel a little cheated.

Which is not to say there isn’t formidable talent here. Garrone, who operated the camera himself, has an exquisite eye for light and sweat and off-screen space. The film is tremendously designed, a guided document startlingly opened up with luscious 'Scope framing, and it has blessedly little of the forced “character” of, say, an HBO crime series. The authenticity is ceaseless and unflinching. It’s the kind of film you may come away from assuming that each performer was plucked from the street and told to riff on his own persona. (Not true: amazingly, the cast is made up largely of stage actors.) And there are inspired visions of the absurd: a shot-up minivan peeling into a cemetery, eight-year-old boys helming semi-trucks loaded with toxic waste, the two dumbasses in tighty-whiteys shooting massive machine guns in the air.

There’s real filmmaking here, but it’s frustratingly unmoored. Part of the problem might be sourcing; based on the non-fiction book of the same title by Robert Saviano, the film is wedded to a non-fiction structure. “The raw material I had to work with when shooting Gomorrah was so visually powerful,” Garrone states in the press kit, “that I merely filmed it in as straightforward a way as possible.” I’m tempted to ask, then: Why film it at all? How does seeing all this, as opposed to reading it, enrich our view of this hopeless situation? An episodic non-fiction visualization like this is engrossing at first, but it is numbing at last. Lots of life, sure, but woefully little invention.

John Magary is a New York-based filmmaker. His short film The Second Line is currently making the rounds.

Posted at October 3, 2008 8:26 AM

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