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Gomorrah

October 14, 2008

God, but I’m just all bleaked-out. That’s it now; comedy and musicals from now on.

I dragged myself out to Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah late last night and am now so profoundly depressed I think only pills or suicide or a thorough brainwash brought about via a diet of full-on teen Happy Movies between now and Rapture will erase the thing from my mind.

The problem is two-fold; one, it’s a masterpiece and so you can’t stop watching, and two, the issues it points to via a series of grim neorealist documentary or even verité style set-pieces are so pointedly there and current, you begin to wonder about the whole point of life. If things are this shite, why do we carry on?

Scampia in Naples is a hole, a proper festering concrete Hell, populated by the poorest of Naples’ poor. In the ghetto – a swarming, baking, sweaty cauldron of fear and poverty – the mob, the Camorra, rules. We follow five vaguely interlinked stories that build up and up into a picture of despair and grinding, horrific inevitability. Totò, a young lad perhaps not even a teenager, who wishes more than anything to join the ranks of the camorristi; Marco and Piselli, two cringingly brash Tony Montana wannabes, who get lucky in a coke heist and then start to make nuisances of themselves; Don Ciro, a put-upon money man charged with wandering the high-rise corridors, eager to get out but tied to the obligations of handing out a sort of ‘mob dole’ to the many eyes and ears of the organisation; Pasquale, a tailor managing the Camorra’s sweat-shop empire churning out haute couture for the fashionable Milanese; and even worse, Franco, a suave and believable businessman with the most diabolic undertaking of all.

Franco is turning Southern Italy into a vast dumping ground for toxic waste. From all over the EU he offers the cheapest rates for material disposal and then simply buries it in local quarries, unhindered by ideas of safety, control or long-term health issues. Visits to his workers struck down by cancer are played out in a sickeningly callous manner – as the mob gets richer, the poor get poorer and sicker.

The striking thing, well, no, one of the many striking things, about Gomorrah is that there is no capofamiglia here, no Scarface big boss. We don’t even see a consigliere, or indeed anyone of significant rank. At best, we’re involved with the made men, the enforcers, but mostly it’s just a loose amalgam of street thugs in thrall to an amorphous clan that they’re utterly terrified of. This presiding sentiment of fear and obligation is in every scene, and is most evident at a hospital when a small band of street soldiers, who have just accompanied one of their number after a brutal shooting (is there any other kind? Not in this movie): shaking, they debate what to do. They know they must do something, but such are the grey areas and complex relationships and terror of getting things wrong, that they are thrown into a maelstrom of desperate indecision.

None of this is glamorised. Even in the already-infamous scene where Marco and Piselli strip to their underpants on a deserted beach and fire off round after round of semi-automatic fire into the distance, you still have to remind yourself that these are kids, big-headed and puffed-up by the power of the weaponry, of course, but still kids who should have a future in front of them, but just don’t. You know they will die very soon.

The organisation is the thing here, and it’s everywhere. Violence, too, is an ever-present. Only in passing do we ever see the carabinieri and we never see a priest. There is nothing else, just the Camorra and violence.

At the end, a raft of facts and figures rolls soberingly across the screen, but we’re already sober. After two hours of seeing lives destroyed with such casual brutality, and with no hope of a future except the constant repetition of being a part of the machine, there’s no other way to be.

Ultimately, Gomorrah is a gruelling tour of hell, but one that is impossible to look away from. If we don’t engage fully with the characters, as has been mentioned by some critics, I think that’s because we swiftly (within the first few seconds) put up a shield to protect ourselves from the events on screen, but that doesn’t mean we can look away, however much we may want to.

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