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November 4, 2008

When I first arrived on the internet, one of the first people I exchanged e-mails with was a man who turned out to be a rather ardent supporter of the Italian political party Lega Nord.  Now an integral part of Italy’s ruling coalition, the Lega Nord’s tendency towards populism and racism has fuelled fears of an Italian relapse into Fascism.  The Lega’s supporter I corresponded with once complained “why should I pay for those brown-skinned bastards singing in the sun?”.  The ‘bastards’ in question were not gypsies or asylum seekers or any of the other traditional scapegoats of the European right but Italians who happened to be from the south.  Arriving ten years too late for a witty riposte, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah — based upon a critically-acclaimed work of investigative journalism by Roberto Saviano — suggests that the answer to the Nordista’s question is that, clearly, nobody has been paying for the people of southern Italy as Garrone’s Naples is a decaying. almost post-apocalyptic wasteland passed over by globalisation, abandoned by governments and ignored by the Church.

A success at the British box office thanks, in no small part, to some heavy advertising playing up the film’s non-existent thriller aspects, Gomorrah is not an entertaining film.  It is not a film that you will be quoting to your friends on the way home, nor is it a moving ‘emotional roller-coaster’ full of ‘compelling characters’ and spectacle.  It is a film that asks questions of its audience while giving them very little to hold onto.  In fact, it is so defiantly inhospitable that it seems to have been put together with the explicit goal of avoiding ‘entertaining’ its audience.  However, scratch the surface and think a little bit about what is going on and the rewards are astonishing as Gomorrah does not only take a hatchet to the conventional crime film, it also lands a number of very well-aimed jabs at the nature of capitalism itself.

The film’s first target is the traditional gangster.

In season three of The Sopranos, Meadow brings home a classmate who approves of Tony’s love of old gangster films. “Cagney is modernity” intones the college student smugly.  The Cagney in question is, of course, Jimmy Cagney in Wellman’s The Public Enemy (1931).  The class that had prompted the student to take an interest in Cagney is called ‘Images of Hyper-Capitalist Self-Advancement in the Era of the Studio System’.  It is obvious why Cagney would be studied in such a class as the gangster is one of those figures (along with masked super-heroes and gun-slingers) that American culture simply cannot help but clasp to its sweaty bosom.

The gangster is traditionally an immigrant who has crawled from the ruins of Old Europe in order to seek self-advancement through hard work, dedication, love of family and a willingness to break the law in order to make money from areas that the government  has (seemingly arbitrarily) frowned upon.  Cinematic gangsters are neoliberal America’s posterchildren; the embodiment of the American dream of self-advancement with minimal state involvement neatly shorn of, that other great American shibboleth, Puritanism.  This image of the gangster as entrepreneur is present not only in Ur-texts such as The Public Enemy but can also be seen in the apparent respectability of the Corleone Clan in The Godfather trilogy, in the business classes attended by The Wire’s Stringer Bell and in the multiculturalism of Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007).  Even Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) suggests that the traditional capitalist gangsters were comparatively blameless compared to the psychotic super-villains unleashed by Batman’s decision to use force and technology to break up the city’s perfectly balanced extra-legal economic ecology.

Garrone’s decision to target this cultural myth is evident in a number of different places.  We can see it in the difference between the swaggering tough-guy image of the traditional gangster and the cowardly functionary embodied by Gianfelice Imparato’s bag-man Don Ciro as well as Salvatore Abruzzese’s sexually ambiguous delivery boy Toto whose only concession to traditional masculinity is a football T-shirt adorned not by an Italian team’s colours but those of the fading metrosexual icon David Beckham.  Both Toto and Don Ciro are interesting choices of characters as they are (as are the protagonists of the three other plot-lines) outsiders to the actual Camorra.  Rather than an omission, this seems to be a deliberate choice.  A point underlined by the film’s opening scene.

The film’s opening sequence is set in a tanning salon.  Bathed in repugnant neon light from the UV lamps, we see traditional tough-guys covered in tattoos and horsing about.  This is a nice reminder and deconstruction of the traditional image of the dapper gangster.  It is also a pleasing reflection of the scene in Goodfellas (1990) where the wise guys’ wives smoke and gossip hideously before coating themselves with unspeakable goo in the hope of maintaining their outwardly glamorous appearances.  Of course, once the deconstruction is finished, the dapper gangster archetype is dispatched from the film by a second bunch of gangsters who turn up and shoot them dead.  The repellent lighting reminds us of how artificial and manufactured our images of gangsters are and Garrone’s decision to kill a bunch of traditional wise-guys in the opening scene directly attacks any complacent pre-conceptions the audience might have arrived with (due, doubtless, to the highly effective British marketing campaign).

This assault continues in the thread dealing with Marco Macor’s Marco and Ciro Petrone’s Piselli.  Foolish teenagers doomed from the start, they enter the film pretending to be Tony Montana in an empty building.  This suggests that even the Neapolitans who have grown up with the Camorra on their door-steps take their impressions of organised crime from films such as De Palma’s Scarface (1983).  The thread dealing with Marco and Piselli also allows considerable light to be shown on the film’s second front.

The film’s second target is the capitalist system itself.

This is addressed most directly in the plot-lines dealing with Salvatore Cantalupo’s Camorra affiliated tailor Pasquale as well as the business man and his assistant who dump toxic waste on mob-owned land (played by Toni Servillo and Carmine Paternoster).  Both of these plot lines exist to demonstrate the degree of connection between the Camorra-run world of the Scampia tower blocks and the ‘real world’ of the wider economy.  In the case of the tailor’s plot-line this fact is made clear in a news bulletin in which a Hollywood star is seen wearing one of the Tailor’s gowns.  Similarly, an early scene with the toxic-waste dumper shows him meeting with a ‘legitimate’ business man who is more than eager to cut his costs by having his waste be dumped illegally and in a way that has demonstrably affected the health of the residents of Naples.  The state is conspicuously absent from Gomorrah, the police reduced to little more than an ineffectual cameo.  The implication is that in this part of Europe where there is no investment and no trickle-down from globalisation, the Camorra effectively are the state in that they provide employment, avenues for self-advancement and some minimal form of social security for the families of people who have died in service to the clans.

This is also made clear through the visual parallels between the Scampia Towers and parts of the Middle East.  If you consider films such as Berg’s The Kingdom (2007) and Spielberg’s Munich (2005) you will find that, increasingly, the dominant image of Palestine and Southern Lebanon is of decaying pieces of Brutalist architecture; huge tower blocks framed between dusty streets and brilliant blue skies.  This image also dominates the vision of post-revolutionary Iran in Satrapi and Paronaud’s Persepolis (2007) and the similarity with the decaying urban warrens of Scampia is remarkable.  Much like Hamas, the Camorra exists in a space which, in other environments, would be occupied by the state.

Gomorrah’s most damning criticism of the capitalist system is its refusal to buy into Ayn Rand’s myth that capitalists are champions of individualism battling against the state.  Gomorrah suggests that the Camorra (and the other capitalists along with them) exist because they are supported by a vast almost feudal network of middle-men and customers who support their swaggering tough-guy lifestyles and pointless turf wars.  For example, Don Ciro is involved enough in the Camorra to merit the title ‘Don’ but all he does is deliver money and when he is confronted by the demand to help some crooks rob his masters, he is horrified both by the violence and the sheer Otherness of a way of life that revolves around violence.  Similarly, Toto is a low-level Camorristi but his activities are crushingly mundane; making deliveries like those he made when working for his mother and yelling out whenever a truck approaches the towers.  He too is called upon to betray someone he knows and his reaction is, yet again, shock and horror.  Toto and Don Ciro are to the swaggering tough-guys what most people are to the financiers and business men; they are a support structure.

This not only destroys the traditional cinematic image of the gangster as capitalist knight errant, it also makes it clear the extent to which the wider capitalist system is implicated in this brutal exploitation and also suggests that the anti-state language of many right-wing thinkers is entirely deluded because the capitalism that emerges in a practically stateless environment is not only quick to take on the shape of the state, it is also far more brutal, selfish and exploitative than even the minimally neutered capitalism of the West.  Indeed, in a Cafebabel article in support of his book, Roberto Saviano pointed out that the Camorra are not simply business men, they also bring with them a harsh and repressive set of ‘tradional’ morals, which they brutally enforce.  The Camorra do not allow women to die their hair, Hamas and organisations like them make sure that women cover their hair.  Such pointless control freakery reminds the people of who is in charge and also gives the systematic oppression an aura of moral legitimacy by having the organisations’ foot-soldiers enforce some petty moral diktat.

Rereading the above paragraphs, it strikes that it is not at all clear where the text of the film ends and real history or my interpretation begin.  This is no accident.  The literary collective Wu Ming (formerly known as Luther Blisset) have argued that Saviano’s book is a part of an emerging sub-genre known as the New Italian Epic.  One of the characteristics of this subgenre is a willingness to blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction both at the level of subject matter and style.  As Roberto Bui (Wu Ming 1) asks in his afore-linked talk about the NIE; “Who’s the narrating I?”.  This blurring of the lines is also present in Garrone’s adaptation of the book.  Stylistically, Gomorrah is a mixture of the kind of long-take, unobtrusive documentarism that you find in works such as Kazuhiro Soda’s Campaign (2007) and the minimalist emotional impressionism of Carlos Reygadas’ Silent Light (2007).  Its narratives are split up, disjointed and hands-off affairs with little effort made to humanise the characters or provide accessible emotional arcs for audiences to latch onto.  As such, the film sits uncomfortably between a highly stylised art house film in which every frame has significance and a laissez-faire documentary made up of raw footage of people’s lives that directors and editors must ruthlessly edit in order to extract anything resembling a narrative or argument.  This unusual style makes for uncomfortable viewing as it means that one is constantly trapped between wanting some kind of voice-over and reacting against the typical Italian sentimentality and artificial emotional manipulation of Marco and Ciro’s deaths or a late scene in which, completely out of character, the toxic waste-dumping business man steals some peaches from an old woman only to throw them out a short while later.

Gomorrah’s strange mixture of hands-on art house direction and hands-off documentary film-making is eerily reminiscent of another film that fits Wu Ming 1’s term “Unidentified Narrative Object”.  Much like Gomorrah, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) is a film that sits uncomfortably within its own medium.  Because of the demands of the cinematic form, both films appear to be about individuals’ stories but when attempts are made to give these elements emotional depth they come across as contrived as in the case of Gomorrah’s peaches and There Will Be Blood’s milk-shake speech.  Both films are clearly about wider social issues (There will Be Blood is based upon a book inspired by the Teapot Dome Scandal) and both films push the limits of what is actually possible in a cinematic context.

is an important and undeniably great film.  The amount of ground it covers and the way in which it does so is simply staggering.  It is impossible to engage with Gomorrah without your mind wandering to the wider social issues it so skilfully unearths.  However, for all its greatness, Gomorrah is far from an enjoyable cinematic experience and one is left wondering how much of this greatness is due to Saviano’s heroic journalism, and how much of the strange narrative is due to Garrone’s unconvincing attempts at putting a human face on a huge set of issues.

  1. November 10, 2008 3:31 pm

    I didn’t know you were familiar with Wu Ming Jonathan, have you read either of Q or 54? Both are excellent, rich in complexity both of narrative and of idea. Spectacular stuff.

    Upton Sinclair barely wrote narratives, his works were ones of social critique in novel form, I haven’t seen There Will be Blood yet but given the source the problems you mention seem near inevitable.

    Gomorrah itself has become much more interesting to me as a result of your review, as a thriller (as it’s advertised) I was looking forward to it – I’ve studied in Naples and have a fondness for the city. As this work of uncomfortable quasi-documentary however it interests me far more, the inhospitability sounds like a means to cause the viewer to engage with the content (if they choose to engage at all) at a more meaningful level than many films require and I rather welcome the prospect of that.

    Interesting stuff, I may post some thoughts on the old Gangster movies some time, I’ve seen all of them having oddly enough studied them at school (and having a great and abiding love for them as well), I agree with your take though.

    Regarding the Sopranos, does that not too deliberately undermine images of the gangster? Each season, I’ve seen up to four now, at least once reminds the viewers how exactly it is these people make their money. The episodes where Tony and the crew get involved with a manager of a sports shop eventually subsuming it within their own operations, the way in which mere contact with them acts as some kind of toxic contaminant which destroys the lives of those it touches, these are themes the show keeps returning to. In the Sopranos too their images of themselves are filtered through film and television (one does gangster impressions), but their reality is simultaneously ugly, corrupting and yet remarkably quotidian. In that way I think it’s a very sophisticated series, which intentionally engages with the glamourisation of the gangster as part of its key themes.


  2. November 10, 2008 7:28 pm

    I’m familiar with Wu Ming as I’m familiar with Luther Blissett, in fact Q is one of the few works of fiction I have kept at home. Usually I sell on or stow in the basement. I have a copy of 54 but have yet to dip my toes into it.

    You may well be right about the lack of narrative drawing attention to the issues. I went to see Quantum of Solace over the weekend and I was shocked at the extent to which conflict and drama actually distract from the ideas. I also found this in The Dark Knight… you had these interesting ideas but they kept interrupting them with stupid fight scenes and bickering amongst the characters.

    There Will Be Blood is another example of exactly this as reactions to the film have tended to stress the performances and the relationship between the oilman and the preacher even though that’s AT BEST a sub-plot. In truth, I’m not sure that the director really understood non-narrative cinema with regards to that work.

    I think the move away from classical narrative IS an attempt to focus upon the ideas but whether it is intentional or not is not yet clear to me. I shall think more on the matter, but I don’t think it is intentional in the case of There Will Be Blood. I think that film fights tooth and nail to hang on to drama and conflict.

    Regarding the Sopranos… I think there’s SOME deconstruction but I think the image of the dapper rogue remains. The final season does try to step away from it by stating that you can’t fix Tony because he’s a psychopath, but I think that moment came far too late and, as a result, the point is moot in the series as a whole.


  3. November 26, 2008 9:23 am

    One quarrel and one only. The character of Toto represents, in fact, a traditional ideal of masculinity that has a long history in Italy, and particularly in the Naples area, that goes back to its Greek origins. The obsession with the perfection of the body is everywhere in the film. Any visitor to Naples will be struck by the stylishness of the men – the white shirts, the perfect hair, the polished shoes – and the fashion-obsession of the women. Of course, most of the famous labels are Fatto a Napoli, probably in back-street sweatshops. Here the expression fare una bella figura, which generally means something like ‘putting on a good face’, can literally mean looking perfect, and the obsession stands in stark contrast to the misery of the slums.
    My only disappointment with the film is that unlike the book it didn’t make the observation that the Camorra is an integral part of Italian capitalism – despite the involvement of northern businesses in the rubbish disposal racket. This could have been achieved (possibly at the risk of a loss of unity) by moving some of the action into the wealthier areas. But by concentrating the action in the poverty-stricken outer suburbs, the impression was created that this is somehow a problem of the slums – an attitude not uncommon in Naples – whereas in fact, the Neapolitan term for the Camorra, ‘o sistema, the system, makes it clear that organised crime is a systemic problem for Italian society and also, paradoxically, constitutes almost an anti-state, though one which is based on the purest neo-liberal principles.
    Anyway, this is a fine review. Many thanks.


  4. November 28, 2008 10:45 am

    Good points from William there. I spent a month studying in Naples, and have been back many times. While I was there at least one Camorra employee (for want of a better term) was pointed out to me, he was running minor errands for them and was a familiar sight in the (admittedly apparently extremely high crime) area I was living in.

    Also interestingly, it was explained to me that I was safe from any crime while in that area, as the Camorra had let it be known that tourists (and foreign students fell into that category) were not to be touched – the resultant police investigations caused too many losses in other more lucrative areas of business such as the unofficial cigarette stalls that were in every street.

    William is correct that they form there a kind of shadow or anti-government, providing structure where otherwise there is merely chaos. Being what they are though, the structure they provide though perhaps better than absolute chaos is nonetheless essentially parasitic on the population and backed by implicit (and if need be explicit) violence.

    Organised crime cannot be separated from the State in Italy, even today questions remain about where Berlusconi got his start up capital (as repeatedly asked in the excellent Il Caimano by Nanni Moretti – a harder hitting film by some way than most of his output). Many relatively recent senior Italian politicians have or had proven links to organised crime also, to be honest I think to regard Italy as a Western democracy is fundamentally a category error, I don’t think it’s yet quite made that leap. And I say that despite the possibility I may one day choose to move there.


  5. November 28, 2008 11:28 am

    William —

    Yes, I think you’re right about Toto. He would certainly have done well for himself at a Renaissance court :-)

    Glad you liked the review and I completely agree with you about the fact that the Camorra are clearly a feature of Italian capitalism. They’re a systemic problem produced by the fact that the South of Italy is effectively like the third world and so it goes the route of many third world areas; it is ignored by governments, exploited by business, and increasingly reliant upon gangsters to provide many of the services that the state should run.

    It’s Hobbes’ leviathan effectively… lacking a sovereign willing to protect them, the people turn to whomever is strongest, regardless of the morality of that strong man.

    I agree, though reading it back I do realise that the review makes it look as though I think that organised crime and state capitalism are separate and distinct entities.


  6. November 28, 2008 11:29 am

    William —

    Yes, I think you’re right about Toto. He would certainly have done well for himself at a Renaissance court :-)

    Glad you liked the review and I completely agree with you about the fact that the Camorra are clearly a feature of Italian capitalism. They’re a systemic problem produced by the fact that the South of Italy is effectively like the third world and so it goes the route of many third world areas; it is ignored by governments, exploited by business, and increasingly reliant upon gangsters to provide many of the services that the state should run.

    It’s Hobbes’ leviathan effectively… lacking a sovereign willing to protect them, the people turn to whomever is strongest, regardless of the morality of that strong man.

    I agree, though reading it back I do realise that the review makes it look as though I think that organised crime and state capitalism are separate and distinct entities.


  7. November 28, 2008 11:32 am

    Max —

    Indeed. It is easy to forget how insane a political system Italy has; the weird political parties, the constant changes of government, the corruption (I was once asked quite openly by an Italian student how much an A cost).

    I think that if you want to understand the internal politics of the new Iraq, Italy provides quite an interesting template.


  8. December 2, 2008 9:59 am

    Jonathan, I reviewed the book over at but I’m still chewing over the relationship between the film and the book. I think in both cases the courage is astonishing. There’s nothing in either that will endear either Saviano or Garrone to the Camorra, not in the way The Godfather became part of the Sicilian Mafia’s ideal self-image. The film and book are gestures of insurrection.


  9. December 2, 2008 11:33 am

    William —

    I completely agree (and that’s a fine review by the way). I think it will be very difficult, going forward, to take another gangster film seriously given how thoroughly Saviano and Garrone have de-mythologised and de-romanticised the image of the gangster.

    Interestingly, I think The Wire was nowhere near as effective at this. Whereas most of the Wire’s targets are hit quite cleanly (the corruption of labor, the gaming of the school system), it struggles to put across the idea that the capitalist drug dealer is a bad thing. Stringer Bell is seen as a hero by many Wire fans as I think The Wire keeps up a distinction between corrupt mainstream capitalism and corrupt illegal capitalism that really should not exist. I don’t think that was necessarily intentional, The Wire is very fond of talking about the systems of capitalist oppression, but I think it’s a point they struggle to get across when compared to the effortlessness of the film.


  10. December 2, 2008 12:27 pm

    I hate to say it Jonathan, but I don’t have a TV. When I did I only had the Irish stations. I’m not a luddite or anything, but I just hate advertising.
    I didn’t see The Caiman, but when my life settles a bit I’m going for the DVD. Should see Quiet Chaos in the next few days though.


  11. December 2, 2008 6:38 pm

    Hi William —

    I’m in the same boat. I got rid of my aerial about three years ago and I have never regretted it. I have The Wire on DVD but I am sure that it can be found on the net too :-)

    As to whether this constitutes ‘watching television’ is a question of semantics but if you’re capable of watching films on DVD then I think it might be worth your while taking a look at The Wire.


  12. December 2, 2008 9:07 pm

    You’re the second person to suggest it. I’ll have to check it out.


  13. giovanni permalink
    December 3, 2008 7:59 pm

    A very small linguistic suggestion: ‘fare una bella figura’ is not just a matter of ‘good-lookingness’. It involves an ethic (sometimes, sometimes…) connection to one’s behaviour. So, it’s not about being handsome, but about being virtuous.



  14. giovanni permalink
    December 3, 2008 9:43 pm

    I meant ‘observation’, not ‘suggestion’…


  15. December 4, 2008 7:45 pm

    Hi Giovanni :-)

    Isn’t it about the outward projection of virtue though?

    so the Camorra might give money to people whose relatives are doing time or who are dead because it makes them look like good and virtuous people, but at the same time, out of public view, they are utterly immoral.

    I think the Sopranos dealt with this idea very nicely (and Mad Men definitely does too). It sees society as a judgmental place… so you look good, you are wel dressed, you have the wife and kids and the big car but behind closed doors you’re fucking prostitutes and selling drugs.

    It’s not just a style thing, you’re quite correct, but isn’t it more about the appearance of virtue than actual virtue?


  16. December 7, 2008 12:17 pm

    Thanks for the enlargement, Giovanni. I accept your point with this qualification, that you’re kinder to the general run of humanity than we deserve. I note the rueful tone of your ‘sometimes… sometimes’ and I share it. Most of us, after all, are content enough with the appearance of virtue. A clean shirt and a smile pass for goodness, robes and furred gowns hide all, etc.


  17. giovanni permalink
    December 9, 2008 3:39 am

    Of course, Jonathan & Maestromuro, it’s about the appearence of virtue. The latin ‘figura’, which passed identical in italian, means ‘appearence’, and is connected with ‘fingere’, which means ‘to pretend’ – so you’re right. I might be severe, but for the majority of italian people ethics IS a matter of appearence, of self-projection into others’ minds. But i must say, also, that ethics itself has to deal with appearence. ‘Ethical’ is a person, an act, whatever, that could and should be taken as an example – so, in a very strict sense, it is the projection of an intention through a behaviour. I don’t want to be far too philosophical, but that expression (fare una bella figura) could really summarize the spirit of my country, and I think that both Saviano and Garrone succeded in that summary. At the other pole of the problem stands, powerful and terrifying, Elio Petri’s ‘Investigation on a citizen above suspicion’, which marks the other side of ethics and appearence in a definitive way.




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