Gomorrah opens Friday in select theaters
The opening scene of the fact-based Italian gangster film Gomorrah encapsulates everything that is good and, ultimately, wanting in this critically acclaimed picture. As mafia members relax in a tanning salon, a group of rival gangsters stroll in, issue a few pleasantries to their brethren in crime, and then suddenly gun them down, leaving the dead mobsters to bake in the UV rays.
As the film's title card bursts onto the screen, the viewer's interest is piqued, and thanks to years spent watching movies of this ilk, we have questions. Who are the gunmen? Why did they kill the other gangsters? How will this episode eventually fit into the film's primary storyline? Surprisingly—and unfortunately—only the first question is answered, and only partly.
Gomorrah is adapted from a book by journalist Roberto Saviano that exposes the powerful, Neapolitan crime syndicate known as Camorra. Saviano has suffered threats on his life as a result of his revelations, and his prose reflects the deadly serious subject matter.
Director Matteo Garrone extends Saviano's realist approach to the big screen, crafting a narrative that is gritty and ferociously cynical. Incorporating an Altman-esque approach (think Nashville and Short Cuts), the movie oscillates between five separate storylines (only two appreciably intersect) about Italians affected by organized crime. In one, two brash wannabes named Marco and Ciro steal a cache of Camorra weapons. For the duration of the film, the hapless duo fire off their guns, rob a casino and spout lines from the 1983 Brian De Palma film Scarface. The use of this kitschy classic, canonical in gangsta rap culture, drives home Garrone's goal of deglamorizing both the real-life mob lifestyle and the gangster film genre. Indeed, it is telling that Garrone doesn't spotlight the gangsters themselves, but rather the quasi-innocents ensnared in the culture of the mob.
However, in his attempt to redefine mob movies, Garrone eschews many of the qualities that make cinema interesting and tantalizing. He focuses so squarely on his characters' sinful awfulness that he forgets it's often the sinners who lure the moviegoers. For instance, in one subplot, we periodically visit Roberto, a recent graduate working in that old standby, waste management, who watches his corrupt boss illegally dump toxic chemicals in disused mines. Roberto's character arc remains flat throughout, serving merely as a conduit of disgust over his boss' actions. In another subplot, a timid mob bagman walks a tightrope between feuding factions that are each trying to exploit him. A 13-year-old boy named Totò, who longs for acceptance into a gang, looks on as violence envelopes and destroys those around him. And, ultimately, the Scarface fans Marco and Ciro are just a couple of knuckleheads who stupidly overstep their bounds.
In trying to squeeze in the many slices of life affected by Camorra, Garrone creates a diffuse narrative that reserves little of its 135-minute running time for developing a creative plot or provocative, fascinating characters. The lone exception is the tale of Pasquale, a haute couture tailor who spends nights secretly training Chinese sweatshop workers in the art of sewing knockoffs in violation of his competing, Camorra-controlled employer. The intrigue in this storyline dissipates after the opening scene, unfortunately.
Much the same can be said about a film full of thematic import that, stylistically speaking, takes the easy way out. A good filmmaker knows how to sell the sizzle and the steak, and Gomorrah could have used a lot less tumid monotony and a lot more Tony Montana.