In his notes on Gomorrah, director Matteo Garrone writes:
The raw material I had to work with when shooting Gomorrah was so visually powerful that I merely filmed it in as straightforward a way as possible, as if I were a passerby who happened to find myself there by chance. I thought this was the most effective way of reproducing the feelings I experienced during the time I spent making the film.
This is surprising, because Gomorrah looks gorgeous, even as it unsentimentally depicts the human destruction wrought by the Camorra, a massive network of organized crime radiating outwards from Naples into the world at large. Director of photography Marco Onorato captures the gray Italian skies and apartment blocks of the characters' home in sharp, stunning detail that recalls the decay of Rio's slums in Fernando Meirelles' City of God. But Garrone eschews that film's hyperactive narrative/visual flow to keep a steady, unblinking eye focused on the human cost of the Camorra's trade.
Based on a heavily reported novel by Roberto Saviano, Gomorrah features five interlaced stories: there's Don Ciro, the Godfather figure; Toto, the 13 year old drafted into gang allegiances; Marco and Ciro, the Scarface-loving teens running amok in a disastrous attempt to earn the clans' acceptance; Franco and Roberto, the toxic waste managers; and Pasquale, a tailor at the nexus of high fashion (and high-fashion counterfeiting). The mafia's influence is so pervasive that these characters -- and everyone else in this world -- have no choice but to constantly work within the Camorra's "system" for their very livelihoods. As one particularly bleak scene illustrates, the mob's actions even have repercussions for the very food and water that springs from land poisoned by illegal waste dumping, contributing to an exponential rise in the frequency of tumor growth in the southern Italian population.
Gomorrah's greatest achievement is its ruthless depiction of the clichés and conventions of mob movies running headlong into real life, with all of its consequences and aftermaths. The closing scene, in which two human bodies are picked up by a backhoe and rolled down a beach like carelessly dumped waste, is a memento mori for would-be Michael Corleones everywhere. But Gomorrah reaches even further. It testifies to the direct links between the Camorra's illegal horrors and its legal business dealings -- which directly touch American lives, too, from the production of designer fashion knockoffs to the mob's investment in the reconstruction of the Twin Towers. We too are implicated in the Camorra's amoral machinations by our very consumer choices, hammered home by a scene of a Camorra tailor watching Scarlett Johansson walk an E! red carpet in a dress he's made.
Gomorrah does fall prey to the flaws that often plague literary adaptations: it feels overly long in the theater, and it's difficult to fully appreciate in a single viewing. Ideally, the film will lead its audiences to the eponymous novel by Saviano (who has been living under police protection in Italy since the book's 2006 publication) and hopefully inspire a director like Guillermo Del Toro or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to make a film this penetrating about the drug wars ravaging northern Mexico. It's a shame that viewers and reviewers will most likely pass judgment on the basis of one screening, because a second viewing would likely clarify Gomorrah's potential for masterpiece status. In fact, it's astonishing that Gomorrah hasn't even been nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, because it's that rare film with the power to redefine its well-worn genre.