American film likes to make things glossy. It’s understandable. When the majority of American cinema goers are seeking escapism, big budget blockbusters featuring extraordinary things happening to exceptionally beautiful people makes sense. When it comes to other countries, the attempt to ‘glossify’ these foreign locales often gives a false impression of a country, and Italy is no exception. Films like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Heaven paint a picture of an idealized place that doesn’t exist. At least not for most people. It’s Matteo Garrone’s film Gomorrah that is to Italy what City of God is to Rio de Janeiro. It’s gritty, it’s real, it’s heartbreaking and terrifying.
The story is so intricately built, that I’m not ashamed to say I was lost some of the time. Characters come in and out of the story like ghosts that fade into the darkness faster than your eyes can focus. The film takes place in impoverished Naples, which is, in all levels of society, infiltrated and controlled by the all powerful Comorra, the scariest crime organization you’ll ever meet on the big screen. The lives of five Italians are followed to show the extent of the reach of the Comorra. It takes away all the glitz and glam of the mafioso life that has been instilled in us since we saw The Godfather and Scarface. There’s nothing heroic, or romantic about this grim lifestyle that few escape, if any.
The film is based on the book written by former Comorra member Roberto Saviano. After his book was published in 2006, he disappeared into police protection. It only took two years for Maurizio Braucci to adapt it into a screenplay full of terrifying realism that Matteo Garrone took, and with it, made cinema gold. I hate to use the word realism too much, but it’s really the best adjective to describe the film. The characters are real people, the Comorra is all-powerful, and it’s terrifying to watch the number of innocent casualties it leaves in its wake. Many scenes were shot with unsteady handcams that gives the film the feel of a documentary. Whoever served as a location scout should win some sort of award, as it paints a vivid and terrifying picture of a helpless society at the mercy of organized crime.
Seeing it subtitled is somewhat of a task. The Italians speak quickly. Picture having to watch a Robert Altman film subtitled. In heated dialogue, it’s difficult to discern who’s speaking, who’s saying what, and with what inflection. This, combined with the aforementioned elaborate plot makes watching Gomorrah a little laborious, but will divest the greatest rewards for those willing to stick around for over two hours of in-your-face gritty brutality. Garrone is one to be watched carefully. Something this masterful can’t come from a one hit wonder.
Although unrated, I’m guessing it would receive an NC-17 based on the brutal violence and overtly sexual scenes.