Mean streets 

Italian import get waist-deep in grit.

GOMORRAH: The Italian crime film continues at Market Street.
  • GOMORRAH: The Italian crime film continues at Market Street.

“Gomorrah” pulses with justifiable anger. Based on the real-life offenses of the vicious Camorra organization of Naples, as attested by Roberto Saviano's Italian bestseller of the same name, the film wastes no effort to turn up characters worthy of our sympathy. Even while we are made aware that the root of all of this meanness and perverse violence is structural, built into an inescapable system that's been operating for centuries, we'd be hard-pressed to find any action entirely forgivable.

Following four basic threads, each strung through a different level of the criminal organization, “Gomorrah” displays a mania for context familiar to fans of Nicholas Winding Refn's “Pusher” trilogy and Mexican screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. Micro extends to macro and back again. We see both the low-level thug who helplessly flutters his wings and ensuing hurricanes in the upper reaches. Yet the film never seems didactic — only a tad restless and dreamlike, flitting from one subject to another in an almost documentary style. The parallel stories feel of a piece, and any attempt to disentangle them from the whole would be both foolish and dishonest.

“Gommorah” brings to mind a number of predecessors. The camera bobs and shakes in the street-level style of American neo-realists such as Lance Hammer and So Yong Kim, themselves displaying the influence of Belgium's Dardennes brothers. More lurid compositions, leering at youthful but sickly bodies trudging across the wasted Neapolitan landscape, recall the poverty fetishism of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine. Most of all, you can't not think of “The Wire” when watching this film, with its focus on a quotidian existence punctuated regularly by tragedy. But whereas that great show plays host to almost no genuinely unlikable characters, “Gomorrah” overflows with nastiness.

I say this film is angry but not that it is less than calm. Indeed, the pitiless control brought to bear on its horrible subject is almost serene. Death is never more than a matter of fact, and that should be enough. Banality becomes a kind of religion for filmmakers this dedicated to naturalism. Plain truth seems the most powerful, blunter than any sentimental attachment to a given character and certainly less manipulative.

Roberto Saviano was granted a constant police escort following the success and uproar caused by his book in Italy. Plots against his life have been discovered and so far averted. Given the extent of the corruption documented by the author himself, he can't have much faith in his safety. Just 30 years old, he won't live down his greatest success soon. The film adaptation, while not quite the national sensation as the book, has won both intensified international scrutiny for the Camorra and a Grand Prix at Cannes last year. It's unclear whether director Matteo Garrone need fear any reprisal for his part in exposing the organization, but he's sure not going to give them the pleasure of flinching.



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