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Gomorrah

Dir Matteo Garrone (IFC Films) -- 4.5 STARS

By Alec E Jones, Crimson Staff Writer

First, Naples had heaping piles of trash stacked so high that the only way to make way for more trash was to light the piles on fire. Now, with the American release of “Gomorrah,” the international spotlight is on the city’s drug trafficking and gang violence. Naples has had no shortage of negative publicity in the international press, but there is one benefit: people are finally becoming aware of the Camorra.

“Gomorrah”—the latest film from Italian director Matteo Garrone—observes the pervasive influence of the Camorra, or mafia clans, in the city of Naples, Italy. Released in Italy last May and winner of the Grand Prix award at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, the film is only now making its way stateside. Garrone has presented a documentary as a visceral and brutally realistic drama, chronicling the life and times of Southern Italy’s infamous underworld. Fittingly, the film’s origins are not without controversy: Roberto Saviano, the author of the original novel “Gomorra,” had a contract put on his head by the Camorra and currently lives under the Italian government’s police protection.

Garrone takes us inside five fictionalized stories of ordinary people whose lives and professions are attached to the city’s far-reaching organized crime problems. There’s Totò, the boy who hides a gun and bag of drugs during a police raid and is rewarded with initiation into a local gang, only to be sucked into the violence of neighborhood gang warfare. Franco is a waste management official who oversees the Camorra’s side business of illegally dumping toxic waste, poisoning the local farmland. And there’s Pasquale, the tailor who incurs the wrath of the Camorra when he helps a Chinese clothing sweatshop owner competing with mafia business. In the vein of “21 Grams” and “Syriana,” the film is organized in the hyperlink cinematic fashion, and the connections between each character are never directly made. But these individuals are all tiny pieces ensnared in the Camorra’s tentacle-like grip over society. Although the characters never mention the name of the Camorra, its shadow hangs over every facet of life in Naples. It provides work when unemployment is everywhere, attaches itself to legitimate businesses, and establishes its presence as the de facto source of power and authority through murder and intimidation.

Although this movie is about Italian crime syndicates, this is no modern rendition with glorifying elements like “The Godfather” or even “Goodfellas.” Visually speaking, the movie is bleak and almost completely devoid of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Many of the movie’s scenes take place in the bombed-out public housing high rises within the city’s notorious suburbs, where drug dealers openly conduct business and warfare even when the cameras have stopped rolling. While the context of the movie is probably a little removed from American audiences, the plots are fairly straightforward and not overly reliant upon dialogue or character development. We never learn much about our characters’ backgrounds beyond their immediate relationship with the Camorra—but then again, the Camorra is the main character. Often these characters have typical anti-hero qualities, participating willingly in the mafia’s various profit-making activities. But the film is sympathetic to their stories, humanizing their fears and desperation, especially when sudden cracks of gunfire rip through the thin veneer of stability defining their existence. It impresses upon the audience that, despite its ugliness, this is the only life these characters are offered.

The movie is not without its faults. The pacing of the film is slightly tedious, as its tangled subplots can be somewhat slow at times. And because it deals with a highly specific language and setting, the film may be less comprehensible as an international release.

One fact of which foreign audiences may not be aware is that most of the movie’s dialogue is in Neapolitan, not Italian. Less a dialect and more a distinct language with its own vocabulary and a noticeably harsher accent, the city’s linguistic diversity highlights a central division between wealthy and poor, Neapolitan and non-Neapolitan. This is especially important given that the main agent for change, the Italian government, has been unable to effectively combat crime or win allies in the extremely insular Neapolitan society.

However, these are minor gripes. The movie’s themes—poverty, drugs, gang violence, immigration, pollution—are endemic in western society. If you do a bit of pre-viewing research into the current condition of Naples, “Gomorrah” rewards you with a cinematic experience that is chilling in its reality.

—Staff writer Alec E. Jones can be reached at aejones@fas.harvard.edu.

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