Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gomorrah: The Real Godfather

Gomorrah is to The Godfather what last year's American Teen was to The Breakfast Club.  It strips away all the style, flash and romance, of the genre to comment on a real world community that has become inextricably linked with the movies it inspired.  Early crime pictures were fashioned as a reaction to the pervasive growth of organized crime.  Now, the real life members of said "families" are well acquainted with their cinematic counterparts and their behavior can be seen as a reaction to the movies that are based on them.  The reflexive nature of gangland violence is a relatively new phenomenon and something that Gomorrah elucidates remarkably well.      

The title is derived from the word Camorra, which denotes the Neapolitan mafia.  This is the subject of the film, but it also inexplicably calls to mind the interpretive section of the Jewish talmud.  Even if this second allusion is not intended it fits in an odd way.  The serpentine mechanics of the plot and the convoluted ethical conundrums of the characters have confounding philosophical implications that could keep even the greatest Rabbinic scholars busy for many fortnights.  

The movie deftly juggles five different story-lines that highlight the pervasive violence and corruption in the region.  There are a pair of teenagers (pictured above) who dream of being players.  There is a young errand boy who delivers drugs for the mob.  There is a tailor who betrays his employer by soliciting his designs to a Chinese factory.  There is a businessman who oversees the disposal of toxic waste in the countryside and finally there is a middle-aged money carrier who winds up trapped between two rival gangs.  

What makes the movie work are the raw hypnotic performances and the script, which drifts in and out of the various stories and documents the mounting predicaments of the characters with startling authenticity.  Many writers attempt to capture the fly-on-the-wall spontaneity of everyday life unsuccessfully.  Gomorrah, in contrast, is a stunning achievement.  The movie bristles with uncertainty and suspense in every frame, without relying on the conventions of movie suspense to engage us.  

The only occasional false note is Matteo Garrone's direction.  In the context of hundreds, maybe thousands of modern verite-style films, his camerawork and mise en scene sometimes feels lazy and unfocussed.  Characters pass in and out of the frame but the camera is slow to catch up to them.  It would be easy to dismiss this as a deliberate conceit, if not for the very essence of verite -- a style that is supposed to render the camera invisible and immerse us in the events unfolding onscreen.  Mr. Garrone's camera often moves without motivation .  It has a mind of it's own and as a consequence it reminds us that we are watching a film.  

Still, there is no disputing the breathtaking impact of the picture as a whole.   In the end it leaves us no comfort.  No easy answers.  The movie is so disarming and relevant, that Martin Scorsese has attached himself as the North American distributor.  Sadly, in a season of generic movie-theatre filler, Gomorrah deserves attention that it probably won't get.  The small audience I saw it with was clearly unprepared for the experience.

The man directly ahead of me took a brief bathroom break and on his return he slid right off his chair and hit the floor with a loud thud.  Later, he continued to hemorrhage coins onto the floor at inopportune moments -- perhaps he had holes in his pockets.  In contrast, the genius who was sitting behind me was engaged enough to offer his own unique commentary, while the film was still rolling through the projector.  His recurring refrain: "this is a strange movie," helped me to appreciate it even more.  Maybe in retrospect I was the one who missed the point.