Mario SpadaCiro Petrone and Marco Macor in Gomorrah

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.

By contrast, the stories that focus on middle-aged characters are concerned with people who live inside the Camorra only because the outside seems not to exist. Don Ciro, with his comb-over and beige zip-up jacket, looks like any unhappy accountant who is waiting for retirement, except that instead of working in an office, he shambles about the ziggurat, delivering cash to half the resident families. Pasquale, a master tailor, is a livelier figure, who might be happy anywhere he could exercise his talent; but the only place he can work is in a Camorra sweatshop, where he supplies the skill needed to manufacture haute couture on the cheap.

The fifth plotline, the only one in which anybody ponders a moral choice, combines young and old in the characters of Roberto and Franco: a recent university graduate apprenticed to a senior waste-management executive. Their story provides a moment of relief from the oppressive landscape by taking Gomorrah to Venice, where Franco shows Roberto how to negotiate with big companies. (Lesson one: assure the client that the disposal will be “clean,” and offer a bid so low that he pretends to believe you.) Back in the south, this plotline also brings the film into some of its most grandiose settings, such as the towering cliffs of an abandoned quarry, where Franco dumps his toxic sludge.

Meanwhile, a gang war is raging.

Put this all together and you get an impression of the Camorra that feels comprehensive because it shows a multilayered, omnipresent organization in the act of destroying a variety of people, one by one. What you don’t get is the coherent overview that Saviano provides in the book. He takes pains to show how the Camorra has made itself indispensable in today’s mercantile economy, where producers of goods labor in workshops dispersed everywhere in the world, or seemingly nowhere at all, while consumers find that their disposable income is forever shrinking. In this system, costs have to be driven down relentlessly at both ends of the chain–and people who are not overly gentle can make good money doing it.

In short, Saviano’s book is more than a harrowing underworld exposé–it’s a study of globalization. Moviegoers who have read Gomorrah will recognize a trace of this argument in the film’s story of Pasquale, who risks working with an upstart Chinese competitor to the Italian sweatshops. Those who haven’t read the book will have to figure things out by themselves. Proceeding more like a Robert Altman than a Francesco Rosi, Garrone omits as much explanatory material as possible while allowing his plots to move forward with few interconnections, or none. He gives you sensation, not exposition. This might have been cause for complaint, if Garrone had romanticized even one of his characters; but Gomorrah is as unglamorous a gangland movie as anyone has ever made.

Its scenes abound in the uncanny, the outrageous, the grotesque, rendered huge in the widescreen compositions but at the same time invested with a harsh realism. Scrawny youths dressed only in sneakers and briefs tramp through an estuary, test-firing automatic rifles and grenade launchers. Boys wait in line to face their gangster entrance exam: taking a bullet in the chest. Kids who are too short to see over the steering wheels drive trucks in circles, carting toxic chemicals. A sedan barrels along a highway at night, with a man’s disembodied head poking up behind the back seat.

At first, it appears that Garrone is using a limited visual repertory to present these monstrosities. Either the actors’ faces bobble in the foreground of underlit settings, through which a hand-held camera closely tracks them, or else the figures shrink to the relative size of bugs, in steady long shots of gigantesque locations. The intimate mingles with the far-reaching. But as Gomorrah pulls you in more deeply, Garrone’s technique becomes steadily more complex. He splits the frame into jagged areas of light and impenetrable shadow; he pulls in or extends the depth of field, sometimes making the middle distance dissolve and sometimes sending your eye zooming clear to the end of a long perspective; he executes vertiginous crane shots (of a character picking his way through carnage) or lets you fly at thirty miles an hour over the city streets (as when the two Scarface enthusiasts ride a motorbike toward their final showdown). The camera’s performance, like that of the actors, keeps growing in scale and expressivity, even as life gets worse and worse.

Perhaps the most horrible moment of all comes in the closing shot, in which an earthmover rumbles across a beach and into the distance, its shovel raised like a metal hand toward a cold, opaque sky. Cupped within that hand are two corpses. To me, that was the worst of it, in this endlessly compelling, endlessly violent movie–not the sight of dead bodies being lifted like a sacrifice but the realization that I had just witnessed order being restored.

A final alert for readers in the New York area: if you want to find out whether the director of Gomorrah has always been this brilliant, drop by BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn for a retrospective, “The Films of Matteo Garrone,” on view February 12-17.

There is only one pause in Laurent Cantet’s The Class, and one brief scene shot outside a Parisian school. Both occur at the very beginning, when Cantet shows slim, 30-ish François Bégaudeau–by profession a public-school teacher and author, and now a movie actor–doing nothing in a cafe. The shot holds for perhaps five seconds; then Bégaudeau resolutely knocks back a cup of espresso (as if by an act of will) and heads out the door, purposeful, wide awake and moving on the balls of his feet.

From that moment on, The Class is as caffeinated as its protagonist, and with good reason. The semi-autobiographical character Bégaudeau is playing, François Marin, is plunging into a new year of teaching grammar and composition to people who don’t necessarily want to learn them.

His pupils are a wriggling, fidgeting, babbling, argumentative, highly opinionated group of 13- and 14-year-olds–some two dozen in all, whose families come from Morocco, Mali, China, the Caribbean and in a few cases even France. When François makes up a sentence to illustrate the use of a word, his students demand to know why he always chooses weird names like Bill, instead of normal ones like Aïssa. When he tries to justify teaching the subjunctive imperfect, they make him admit that nobody uses it except people like him. And then, from the boys in the back row, comes a random inquiry about his sexual orientation. In most American movies where conflicts of race and class play out in the schoolroom, the teacher successfully smothers these differences under the cozy, homemade quilt of his good will. But this is France, and François has no fear of sharp distinctions. His pedagogical method is to push his students and then to shove, so that he’s always on the verge of going too far with them–or finally steps over the line.

If this is a high-risk strategy for a teacher, The Class itself is no less daring. The nonprofessionals playing the young characters are all real students, who improvised their lines within situations that Cantet, Bégaudeau and screenwriter Robin Campillo invented. The kids’ volleys with François were filmed like a tennis match–one player on this side of the net, all the rest on the other–which multiple cameras had to capture on the fly, without getting in the way of the ball. As you watch this exhilarating back-and-forth, it dawns on you that an ethically complex, emotionally troubling plot has taken shape; and you realize, with astonishment, that Cantet waited an hour to let it emerge.

The wonder of The Class is that, in its making, it was so much like a public school: full of pent-up energies and democratic self-contradictions, procedural constraints and scheduling hurdles. You’d think something like this would be unmanageable, yet this Class works beautifully.

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As someone who has forbidden his children to interrupt him at the computer–if they’re so damned hungry, let them heat their own frozen peas–I can appreciate Henry Selick’s Coraline, an intricate mechanical device built to punish any kid who dares feel neglected. Through the use of vivid 3-D animation, Coraline teasingly fulfills the title character’s fantasy of entering an alternative world, where she has attentive, fun-loving parents who cook. Then the movie turns on the little ingrate, impressing on her in freakish detail the error of her dissatisfaction. A novel by Neil Gaiman is credited as the source of the horror, but “In the Penal Colony” seems as likely an origin for this clattering tattoo of instruction.

Should I feed my kids into the machine? Granted, they’re distracting and apt to complain; but they do know that Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is fun and will recognize that Coraline is not. I’ll give ’em a reprieve, on grounds of good taste.