Gomorrah is harrowing. It also is astonishing, a supremely controlled, supremely devastating work that alternates scenes of dread with moments of quick, almost surgically precise brutality. There are a handful of light moments, but they are the blackest of comedy, and they only throw into relief the despair that suffuses this remarkable film.
Gomorrah is based on the 2007 book of the same name by Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, who chronicled the Neapolitan Mafia - the Camorra - in Campania, the region in southern Italy. Saviano wrote of murder, of a ruthless drug trade, of environmental catastrophe, of children in harm's way when they are not themselves doing the harm. All are here in the screen telling, in which director and co-writer Matteo Garrone weaves together several stories of depredation in Campania.
Using overlapping plot threads is Robert Altmanesque, of course, but Gomorrah makes me think of still another filmmaker: Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose 1988 Polish TV series The Decalogue hauntingly explored overlapping stories in a depressing Warsaw apartment complex. Much of Gomorrah takes place in a similarly grim block of flats, where a certain calm prevails as the film begins, the spectacularly violent prologue notwithstanding.
Local crime clans are at war with each other, but the complex's dingy walkways are for the moment peaceful enough for Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) to make his deliveries. Don Ciro is a meek, slightly fussy man who, on behalf of his clan bosses, distributes money to people loyal to the clan - people who have family members in prison because of the clan. Also making the rounds of the complex is Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), a boy of about 12 who delivers groceries for his mother's business, frolics in a wading pool like the kid he is - and watches with interest as young men around him traffic in guns and drugs.
Other stories unfold. Two not-very-bright young men (Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone) play at gangster with each other, waving pistols and quoting from Scarface. They run afoul of a crime boss (Giovanni Venosa), then steal his cache of weapons and, in a funny and truly odd moment, wear tiny bathing suits as they sprint down a beach firing automatic weapons. Elsewhere, a clothing manufacturer (Gigio Morra) seeks illicit funding for a venture, even as his star tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) takes money on the side to train Chinese competitors. And a sleekly dressed businessman (Tony Servillo) arranges to illegally bury masses of toxic waste.
Disaster unfolds on every front. The most chilling story is that of Totò, who seems like a sweet kid. Unfortunately, like youths in crime-ridden places everywhere, he finds lawlessness enticing, and especially the camaraderie of lawless young men. The moment of his initiation is one of the film's most shocking scenes, as he straps on a bulletproof vest and lets a man shoot him in the chest. Later, alone in the mirror, Totò fingers the bruise tentatively.
Watching Gomorrah I was reminded of The Godfather, which I revisited recently. Like the earlier film, Gomorrah is about people not that different from you and me. They do their jobs. They worry about their families. The difference is that when you and I have disagreements with people, the result is not horrific massacres.
Thinking of The Godfather, I also wondered: Would Gomorrah be more penetrating if it focused on just one of these stories? Possibly. But the range of Campania's woes is wide - just as the range of humanity's woes is wide - and Saviano's anthology format lets him explore how corruption and violence destroy many lives in this community all at once. And not just criminals' lives. There also are children, and tailors.