All Tollbooth, No Driving Lessons
De-romanticizing a film genre is a tricky business. Pull a few punches and risk de-fanging the entire endeavor. Take it too far and risk alienating viewers who didn't sign up for a civics lesson. Gomorra, director Matteo Garrone's adaptation of Robert Saviano's savage journalistic exposé of organized crime in southern Italy, intermittently feels like a great film in the lineage of other sobering reality-bringers such as Unforgiven or Serpico. Unfortunately, instead of driving home the sad desperation that is the reality of the working classes enslaved by organized crime gangs, Gomorra brings such a diffuse viewpoint to its subject that it ultimately leaves a hollow sense of empty promise. Garrone commits so steadfastly to a gritty cinema verité window on grassroots community-level crime that the film sacrifices any vestige of an identifiable connection with the viewer and winds up lacking much heart.
To some extent, the film's defenders would likely argue, that's the point of Gomorra: to remove any whisper of the customary stylized narrative that might lead one to identify with the very lifestyle and traditions that Saviano risked his life to decry. Saviano, a journalist who grew up in the shadow of the Camorra, spent years putting together his scathing indictment not just of his countrymen's betrayal of each other through decades of criminal oppression, but of the abject failure of the fundamental structure of society in stopping the Camorra from its soulless exploitation of the populace -- truly, the wolves left in charge of the sheep. The film adaptation strives so much for documentary-like immediacy that any sense of character or narrative arc is sacrificed to the grim, minute-by-minute reality of the slums of the Neapolitan region of Italy. At the same time, of course, Gomorra is not a documentary, so the viewer feels neither the visceral immediacy of non-fiction nor the emotional engagement necessary to grapple with a work of dramatic fiction. As a result, Gomorra largely fails as a drama, even with due consideration to the non-traditional format Garrone chooses for his story.
That's a crying shame, because Gomorra has a tremendous amount going for it. The film feels absolutely real, succeeding wildly as a work of pseudo-cinema verité shot in a near-documentary style that matches the dark material. There's not a false moment in the film, an astonishing achievement considering the sprawling cast and multiple narrative strands. But the film's achievements are also its undoing, as Garrone applies his craft so well that the overwhelming impression is a sense of unfocused mundanity that distracts from and undermines the powerful reality at the core of Garrone's vision.
None of which is to say there are not some amazing aspects to Gomorra; there are. Most impressive, the sprawling cast, comprised largely of amateurs and unknowns, delivers a uniformly superb performance, with dozens of actors spread among five narrative threads about the Camorra's activities in a suburban tenement, one of those eyesore high-rise developments in the middle of nowhere that dot the landscape outside major cities in Italy and France. Gomorra follows the disparate threads of a Camorra "clan," the organizational sub-unit drawing its structure from the unique social network accompanying large numbers of the disenfranchised shoved into crowded clusters of apartment buildings. Gomorra shifts back and forth among an adolescent grocery delivery boy as he becomes initiated into a Camorra gang; a money courier caught between murderous rival gangs; a tailor peripherally but inexorably tangled in his employer's relationship with the Camorra; two callow thug wannabes way out of their depth in challenging the criminal hierarchy; and a young, educated man learning the ropes of "waste management," Italian style.
These convincing characters maintain a thrumming level of tension, with edgy performances lending a gravity and suspense to the moment-to-moment existences of people born into societal quicksand from which there is no escape. From the mundane details of everyday life, to the hopelessness of living under the thumb of dull-witted but cunning predators, to the visceral thrill of confronting death, Garrone's cast doesn't miss a beat. To the extent Gomorra has a soul to fight for, it is found in Totò (Nicolo Manta), the 13-year-old delivery boy who never has a chance to avoid slipping into the criminal life, and Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), the weary, sad-eyed tailor who accepts money on the side for teaching the garment workers of a rival clothing manufacturer, half-knowingly crossing his employer's overlords for a chance at escaping his vassaldom.
In particular, Totò's narrative thread occasionally threatens to bring down the hammer Garrone seems poised to drive home. Garrone has an eye for gritty details that appear mundane until one is removed a step to gain some perspective, at which point the details become all-consuming in their desperation, such as when Totò and a group of adolescent boys await their initiation rite to graduate into the drug gang operating in their tenement. As five or six boys wait, edgy fear mixed with boredom, they are led away one by one to a rite of passage at once bizarre, dehumanizing, and ridiculous, revealing them as cannon fodder they are too naïve and ignorant to comprehend. Garrone's film repeatedly finds moments like this one, scattered slivers of a gripping vision that never cohere into a whole, beyond the "Camorra-is-bad" message.
Despite their excellent work, the characters, other than the noted exceptions, fail to register as anything other than faceless victims momentarily surfacing for their thankless "j'accuse!", then returning to the milling horde that was unknown before and will be so again when the credits roll. To some extent I wonder whether a U.S. resident's reaction to Gomorra might resemble the way a non-U.S. resident might feel watching David Simon's "The Wire" or Gus Van Sant's Elephant -- in the absence of some vestige of a cultural connection on the part of the viewer, a bloody tale might still come off as bloodless.
In any language or culture, however, the work must ultimately stand or fall on its ability to connect universally. At the end of Gomorra one leaves with a sense of having leafed through a series of newspaper cuttings about a famine in Africa or atrocities in Palestine: Yes, it's terrible; yes, it should be stopped; no, I don't care any more about it than I did three hours ago or three days ago or three years ago. Somewhere in Moscow, Russian mobsters are terrorizing the populace; somewhere in Beijing, Chinese mobsters are doing the same. As a matter of principle, I'm opposed to it. But if a filmmaker wants to reach me, it has to feel like it's happening in my backyard. Otherwise, it simply remains a theoretical concept with no punch, not compelling on a personal level. In the end, there's nothing in Gomorra that elevates it beyond the habitual massacres and bombings beamed into my living room nightly by BBC, and it's hard to deem that result a success.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.