The natural world makes infrequent appearances in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, showing up most notably as a box of rotten, stinking peaches dumped by a road near Naples. The peasant grandmother who has picked this unwanted fruit is not so much simple as senile, and doesn’t know enough to come in from her rainy orchard. The old farmer lies ill in an antique wood-frame bed under the family crucifix, able to wheeze just one word–“Euro!”–to his visitors, who came to buy land to poison.
So much for the countryside and its traditions. The zone where rural and urban life mingle is represented in Gomorrah by two or three perpetually overcast beaches, all but devoid of people but littered with construction equipment and decaying blockhouses. That leaves the city as the site of the main action–and by “city” I mostly mean a Neapolitan housing project that from the outside resembles a concrete ziggurat and inside is a stack of walkways suspended under a cloudy, peaked skylight. The walkways run between rows of apartments that are decaying at best, and at worst have had their facades ripped away, exposing a damp and crusted back wall that is reverting to the condition of a cave. There are exposed, dribbling pipes in the building and pools of groundwater; garages filled with rubble but no cars; vast, high enclosures that seem to have been abandoned by the builder before they got their interior walls, or ceilings, or any source of light except for a rip in the building’s shell.
Monumental Italian ruins, in the contemporary version. But even in them, paradoxically, nature still asserts itself. You unexpectedly hear bird song on the soundtrack, and in the background you see trees that rustle surprisingly green leaves, just before you witness the most heart-wrenching of the film’s countless murders.
This, according to Gomorrah, is what the world looks like when it has been remade by gangsters.
The facts that justify this horrific vision have been established in a book of the same title by the journalist Roberto Saviano, who so vividly exposed the workings of today’s Camorra–the Neapolitan mob–that he’s been living under police protection since 2006 [see “Underworlds,” December 10, 2007]. The characters who inhabit the film’s wasteland are the quasi-fictional creations of Saviano, Garrone and four more screenwriters, who have conceived Gomorrah not as a unified drama but as a continuous, intensifying bloodletting that touches the lives of five distinct clusters of people.
The youngest are willingly implicated. One plotline follows 13-year-old Totò, a watchful, fox-faced, freckled kid in a soccer jersey, who delivers groceries in and around the ziggurat but soon works his way into a job delivering drugs. A second line follows two older adolescents–mature enough to visit a strip joint when they’ve grabbed a little money but young enough to get their skinny asses kicked out for sheer ignorance–who have memorized De Palma’s Scarface and imagine they, too, can become bosses if they deploy their sole assets: idiot bravado and a cache of stolen weapons.