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Monday, December 7, 2009

Too Big to Change

The odds were against Gomorra, at least they were for me. I had high expectations when my friend told me he was recommended the film by several people that claimed Gomorra was one of the best films they had ever seen. When our pizza finally arrived, we started the film and watched as Mateo Garrone painted his picture of Naples and the crime syndicate known as Camorra. What followed wasn’t one of the best films I have ever seen, but certainly one of the best films of 2008.

Gomorrah follows five storylines of people effected by contact with the Camorra. The first thing that caught my eye was Martin Scorsese’s name which was attached to the project. I immediately thought of Goodfellas, Casino, and City of God, glamorized gangster films with stylized violence. Thinking I was getting myself into a grittier version of those films, I allowed the adrenaline in my veins to escalate. Sixty minutes into the film I realized this was not Goodfellas or anything that resembled it. It was at that point that I made up my mind that the film was overrated and it was also at that point that Gomorra began to prove me wrong.

The film takes its time setting up the characters, the landscape, the atmosphere. An hour into the film you feel like you have visited Naples. You have walked the streets to deliver groceries and passed Mafiosos, you have danced to bad Euro-pop music, and you have seen the faces of the Camorra. The first half of the film is to acquaint the audience with where they are and why they are. The second half shows the consequences of being there. For Toto, 13 years old, it means lending a hand in killing Maria, a woman that he brings groceries. For Pasquale it means driving a semi truck to avoid any further involvement with the Mafia, but it also means his love of fashion goes unfulfilled.

Unlike American gangster films, Gomorra doesn’t concentrate on family or honor, but necessity. In Goodfellas. Henry Hill wants the flashy cars and expensive suits the mob has to offer. The same can be said for Marco and Ciro in Gomorra. They are the only characters driven by power and riches and the only characters that meet their demise by the end of the film. The rest are, tragically, trying to live. Toto is trying to make more money than the coin tips he gets in exchange for his deliveries, Pasquale is pursuing the art form he loves and trying to make the money he is promised and never receives, and Don Ciro is just doing his job. Don Ciro is the most emblematic character in the film. He doesn’t know why or what he does, he simply drops off money when and where he is told to. A silent cog in the system, if someone has a complaint he says he’ll pass it along, knowing he has no say so or power. He is a middle man caught up in a world he can’t possibly understand. This is life for the people effected by the Camorra. It is a world too big for them to understand or change, a theme that is reiterated in dialogue and images.
Don Franco and Roberto visit several sites for toxic dumping. The visual contrast is immediate: a large vacant area and only the corner of the screen is occupied by Franco or Roberto. Anytime they discuss the areas, Franco insists they need to be bigger. When Roberto has finally had enough of the ceaseless expansion, he quits, unable to abide the death that Franco is causing. Franco explains he didn’t make the system, it is the way things are and have always been. Roberto walks off into the distance and the audience never sees him again. Perhaps he took Franco’s advice and got a job “making pizza.”

The idea that making pizza is the best alternative to being involved with the mob is exactly what drives Marco and Ciro. Cocky and arrogant, they live the fantasy until they are confronted at a strip club by the mobsters they stole from. Immediately Ciro wants out. The next day they frantically search the forest for the guns to return to the gangsters, but it turns out that Marco only wants to shoot the guns. Ciro cries out and asks what are they doing, but it is clear. What else is there to do, but to go shoot guns in the forest and try to forget about reality? In the end Marco and Ciro pay for their crime. They are lured to a remote area and shot before they see who is holding the gun. The audience barely sees who is holding the gun, nor do they watch the bullets tear through the victims. Garrone makes his pont: no glamour, no Tony Montana moment, merely a routine killing of two wanna-be gangsters. Probably happens everyday. One of the mobsters says afterward, “We wasted all that time on two punk kids.” They never had a chance.

Try as I might, I could not resist enjoying Gomorra. It provided a welcome departure from American gangster films that focus on a “hero” that is something like a cowboy stuck in a life of difficult choices, managing to maintain an honorable code and his humanity. Gomorra tones down the delusion and presents an honest sampling of what it is like to live the life. Garrone didn’t concentrate on made men or bosses, choosing instead to show the nameless and faceless victims of an area overrun by the mafia. The result should win the approval and sympathy of any skeptic.

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