For a film that strives to be an indictment of a viral crime syndicate with roots running centuries deep across Italy, Gomorrah feels surprisingly tame. Not that you could blame director Matteo Garrone for playing it safe (relatively speaking). Roberto Saviano, author of the book Gomorrah, was forced into hiding after receiving death threats for making the detailed practices of the Camorra mafia common knowledge among Italians who, in turn, made his book a national bestselling blockbuster. Unfortunately, Gomorrah ends up feeling like a forced foreign-indie version of Crash or Babel with it's jump-jump storytelling and tales of interconnected consequences.
Garrone's decision to go vague with Gomorrah's five interlocking stores is perplexing. I suppose if you lived in Italy and knew this historically-based information like a 24/7 news item then you wouldn't need to be fed exposition, but, personally, I was unable to discern certain specifics until I got home and did some research. Garrone's point-of-view glides in-and-out, letting his camera hover around the antics of two teenage best friends that play Tony Montana and Manny Ribera like a game of "cowboys and indians", a fashion designer, a delivery boy who gets wrapped up in mafia life (a la a young Henry Hill in Goodfellas), a mafia middleman, and a sort of mentor & apprentice/intern relationship between an old-school mafia player and an educated new-blood.
Gomorrah starts off interestingly enough, lingering on its most cinematic moment of a dark figure becoming gradually illuminated by blue light. We quickly learn that this imposing figure is simply a naked thug in a tanning booth, twisting the tone and playing a joke on our perception of a seemingly strong figure now appearing as just a flabby gangster with goofy protective goggles ("you've got a crap body!", a fellow grunt whistles at him). But Gomorrah shouldn't be mistaken for deglamorizing gangster life. Sure, the lifestyle portrayed isn't one of clothes, bank rolls, and hos, but because of the distance and stylistic choices of Garrone, there remains an element of trashy, brute chic to the lives on screen.
Not that an expose of true criminal activities and atrocities can't be accomplished by using arthouse-y applications. Tonight, I keep thinking about Alan Clarke's 38 minute film, Elephant, and the way its one-note cinema coldly and successfully damns the killings in Northern Ireland that were associated with that region's territorial and political conflicts. But Elephant is a film where the technique and aesthetic are demanded by the choice of subject and message. In Clarke's cut-too-short career, he always held a keen sense for portraying lives on the margins. A descendant of England's kitchen sink realism, Clarke understood the social codes of cliques, respected them (if not always agreeing with them), and used them as guide for his films, rejecting the selfish artist's instinct to lead with his or her own personal political agenda.
I don't doubt the sincerity Garrone has for his subject, yet it's unclear if he is aware of how best to tackle it. I would have loved to have seen Pier Paolo Pasolini get a shot at something like this.