March 31, 2009

Scarface aspirations

Arguably over-hyped, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah is a deliberately disillusioning challenge to those who think that Mafia films should be entertaining -- all death, pasta and melodrama -- that there is something operatic, tragic and noble about the mobster, that Mafia films should come with romantic notions about organised crime as part of a quaint, old-world Italian heritage (as in The Godfather, GoodFellas and the final season of The Sopranos which was heavy with back-in-the-day nostalgia). Of the five parallel stories adapted from Roberto Saviano's fact-based novel about Naples's Camorra, one is easier for us to grasp than the others, because it feels familiar: young wannabes Marco and Ciro quote lines from De Palma's Scarface as they play with guns in the semi-ruins of Neapolitan housing projects; they graduate to real crime (robbing African crack dealers) and then come up against and appear eager to take on the insidious and vicious Camorra itself.

Garrone has shot this grimy and violent film like neo-realist war reportage, which is ideal when your subjects are two dumb punks with guns, but is less exciting when you are observing the real, quotidian business of organised crime, the Camorra's diverse interests in toxic dumping and even fashion, its collections and pay-offs, its courting of new recruits. It's about the dull reality of watching mob accountants count rolls of Euros, kids being sent on drug errands, thugs with guns on rooftops keeping an eye out for the police. Garrone doesn't offer back story or character development; he gives us nothing but the immediate, ruthless present. There is also, we realise, little in the way of wider context until the end titles, which give us some startling facts about the Camorra's reach, the extent of its international crime networks and its connection to legitimate business (even a stake in rebuilding Ground Zero). Up until this point, we have no idea how the Camorra fits into Italy's economy. What is its scope? What has been done to stop it? Or, conversely, why is it so tolerated? Italian journalist Silvia Angrisami, who had mixed views about the film, touched on this last point in Sight & Sound, November 2008: "There is no economic aid for poor people apart from the Camorra, which provides them with a job and a salary ... It's impossible to understand why organised crime is so powerful without taking into account the failures of the Italian institutions and the subsequent lack of confidence of Italian citizens, Neapolitans in particular."