Martin Scorsese may be presenting Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, but this corrosive, slapdash, grimly exciting exposé of organized crime in and around Naples comes on like Mean Streets cubed. Detailing daily life inside a criminal state, it's a new sort of gangster film for America to ponder.
Gomorrah takes its punning title — the Neapolitan crime syndicate is called the "Camorra" — from Roberto Saviano's 2006 best-seller, an impressive feat of first-person journalism by a 26-year-old writer, now under police protection, that was published as a novel in Italy but categorized as nonfiction in the U.S. Many of Gomorrah's characters and situations are drawn from Saviano, but Garrone's movie — a prizewinner at Cannes — is less an adaptation of the book than the successful decanting of its toxic fumes.
Poison is the lifeblood of what Saviano simply refers to as "The System" — crack cocaine, chemical waste, tainted money and creeping corruption. Gomorrah opens with a standard-issue hit in a gangster-favored health spa and then, without ever pausing to explain who wanted whom dead, goes on to map the web of relations by which the Camorra ensnares its subjects (many of whom are played by nonprofessional locals). Crime bosses and crooked pols are off-screen. Instead, we have the residents of a vast, moldering housing estate in Scampia, a Naples suburb reputedly home to the world's largest open-air drug market. Set in the middle of nowhere, this poured-concrete maze is part Aztec pyramid, part minimum-security pen. Transversed by narrow catwalks and alleys and honeycombed with lookouts, delivery boys, enforcers and gangster wannabes, the structure promotes a particular form of tunnel vision.
An exemplar for disastrous urban planning in its failed attempt to provide light and space for its inhabitants, the housing block serves Garrone as an allegorical landscape — at one point, a life-size plaster saint is lowered down from someone's window. Murder and betrayal are everyday occurrences. A fastidious middle-aged accountant scurries along on his rounds, paying out families whose breadwinners have either been sacrificed to the System or are serving it in jail. In a vacant lot outside the fortress walls, two skinny teenagers play at being the antihero of Brian De Palma's Scarface. That's the fantasy; robbing African crack dealers is the reality, after which the two aspiring gangsters dance in scurvy triumph on some gray-sand beach. Their dreams come true when they stumble upon a cache of weapons, including AK-47s and a bazooka. Meanwhile, the Camorra expands into legitimate businesses, from garbage disposal to haute couture.
Garrone skips from one Camorra scam to another, all plots climaxing amid inexplicable internecine warfare in a more or less simultaneous reckoning. Gomorrah's episodic, mosaic structure is in some ways comparable to Steven Soderbergh's Traffic, but Garrone is not so much interested in diagramming a process as mapping a specific terrain. Despite its vivid characterizations, the movie stays on the surface — or, rather, it offers a sort of neorealist reportage. (Occasionally, the sober frenzy indulges in the sort of grotesque humor Garrone employed in his 2002 black comedy The Embalmer, wherein the Camorra enlists a professional taxidermist to stitch a shipment of drugs into a corpse.) The undistinguished visual style is predicated on a jittery wide-screen SteadiCam. There's a sense that Garrone's bobbing and weaving camera is just hanging with the homies — a strategy akin to Saviano's in his first-person book.
Saviano devotes an entire chapter to detailing the often-comic Camorrista fascination with Hollywood gangster flicks — mainly De Palma's Scarface, but also The Godfather, GoodFellas and Pulp Fiction. "It's not the movie world that scans the criminal world for the most interesting behavior," he writes. "The exact opposite is true." Garrone has taken this to heart. Characterized as it is by a total absence of antiheroic glamour, his unsentimentally tough and unrelentingly squalid movie is unlikely to inspire much real-world imitation.