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.
Gomorrah 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.