A Complex Evil

I recently took a break from my Christmas movie bonanza with all its images of love and peace and togetherness to watch Gomorrah, a brutally realistic film about the Camorra, one of the the largest criminal organizations in the world.  I am well aware of the debates over and problems with violence in film, but I do believe it has a place, and Gomorrah is a perfect example of this.

Directed by Matteo Garrone, Gomorrah plops us in the middle of the criminal underbelly of Naples and the activity of the Camorra.  The film opens as a group of about six gangsters tan and get their nails done at a local salon.  Three of them turn on the others and gun them down at close range.  We then move through the rest of the film through five interwoven vignettes.  One involves Marco (Marco Macor) and Sweet Pea (Ciro Petrone) (seen in the poster above), two small-time crooks who think they can work outside the Camorra and openly defy its power.  Both are attracted to the promise of wealth and power than gangster films like The Godfather and Scarface convey, all the while oblivious to the danger and sacrifices that accompany them.  Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a young boy who stumbles into the mafia, is forced to make decisions well beyond his life experiences.  Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is a money man for the mafia, paying families and retired mafia members their montly wages.  An internal struggle among the mafia creates a division, and when he wants to switch sides, he realizes that he will have to pay with more than Euros.  Another vignette follows Franco (Toni Servillo) and his apprentice, Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), as they travel around Europe looking for disposal sites for toxic waste, a “legitimate” branch of the mafia business.  Roberto seems to be the only character in the film who exhibits any sort of guilty conscience about this lifestyle, but before he leaves it behind, Franco challenges any simplistic notions that he might have about life in the Camorra.  The last vignette centers on Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) a tailor who struggles to make ends meet while working oppressive hours and mistakenly believes that he can work for anyone else other than the Camorra.

What The Wire has been to the TV crime drama, Gomorrah will be to the gangster film.  Both present a moral complexity not often found in either genre.  Gomorrah‘s criminal life is anything but glamorous…in fact, it is downright tacky.  The violence, a couple of shootings, is presented in one of three ways, up close, from afar, or immediately after the fact.  In all cases it is presented as a matter-of-fact…this is daily life in that world.  While occasionally frustrating, another highlight of the film is the director’s refusal to explain who people are.  Instead, he lets the audience learn as we go along, much like, I would expect, the residents of that area do as well.  We, of course, are free form the violent consequences of misunderstandings.  Not once does it seem that we encounter the head of the Camorra as he stays hidden from the mundane activities that take place below him.

The sheer overwhelming presence of crime, injustice, and evil is almost beyond comprehension…almost too bad to be true.  However, the DVD interviews with the director and the writer of the book on which the film was based, Roberto Saviano, who had to hire private security after writing it, reveal that indeed life among the Camorra is much worse than the film depicts.  Some of their comments are worth quoting in full here:

We had to make people outside that world understand that as long as you imagine that that world can be divided into ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ you’ll never really understand the heart of that world.  The truth is that when you are inside it, you realize there’s a vast gray zone where good and evil are all mixed together.  And if you grow up inside that reality, that dynamic, it’s very easy to get caught in the gears, and if you try to get out, it’s extremely difficult not to get crushed.  So the real protagonists of Gomorrah are the common people who live in this jungle and face these conflicts.  –Matteo Garrone

The film concludes with this additional information:

In Europe, the Camorra has killed more people than any other criminal organization.  4,000 deaths in the last 30 years.  One every three days.  Scampia is the largest open-air drug market in the world.  Daily sales per day run about 500,000 Euros.  If clan-managed toxic waste were piled up, it would reach 47,900 feet.  Mt. Everest is 29,000 feet high.  Cancer rates have increased 20% in the poisoned areas.  Profits from illegal activities are reinvested in legal activities worldwide.  The Camorra has invested in the reconstruction of the Twin Towers.

Given such a horrific reality, it would be hard to not demonize this organization, but this is exactly what the filmmakers did not want to do.  Gomorrah is neither pro-Camorra nor anti-Camorra.  The filmmakers could not have made it any other way.  When filming, they often had actual members of the mafia looking over their shoulders at the monitors, and just off camera, real drug deals would be taking place alongside the staged ones.  When an interviewer asked Garrone what the locals thought of the film, he responded, “I don’t know, because I was in Rome.  One doesn’t re-visit the scene of a crime.”

To say that Gomorrah is a violent film is to say too much and not enough.  Given this complexity, few films compare to it, and, as such, it makes for a strong contribution to not only the mafia film genre, but to discussions of violence in film and the nature of evil.

Gomorrah (137 mins) is unrated and available on DVD.