Gomorrah is an uncomfortable story about the effects of the real-life crime gang, the Camorra.
It is difficult to imagine a worse place on Earth than the one depicted in Gomorrah. Set in the outskirts of Naples, far from the city's historic buildings and tourist traps, the film shows an urban landscape that is decaying from within. Its disease: the Camorra organised crime gangs.
The oldest criminal organisation in Italy, the real-life Camorra control the channels through which 80 per cent of Europe's cocaine flows. Based on Roberto Saviano's book of the same name (an account of the world controlled by the Neapolitan mafia), the film attempts to do to gangster movies what The Wire did to cop shows. The story follows four narratives, and though the people never meet, they share a common location and a common tragedy: they are all victims of organised crime. There is Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), an haute couture tailor who takes a night job training Chinese garment workers. He is forced to take increasingly drastic steps to protect his life because the Chinese factories are in competition with Camorra-controlled firms.
Less innocent are Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), a pair of teenage stickup boys who have grown up on a diet of US gangster movies and constantly quote Scarface's Cuban drug lord, Tony Montana. With scant regard for anything other than themselves, the boys are dangerous enough, but, after discovering an unguarded stash of automatic weapons, they become a serious nuisance to the Camorra.
Then there's the 13-year-old grocery delivery boy Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), who is inducted into a gang with little say in the matter. After a disturbing initiation ritual that involves being shot while wearing a bulletproof vest, he is increasingly forced to take actions that he is smart enough to know are evil. The only character in the film who eventually makes the right choice is Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a graduate who works for a waste-dumping arm of the Camorra, which takes health and safety regulations lightly. This particular narrative includes some of the film's most startling moments and its most depressingly avoidable evils.
Gomorrah's opening minutes are certainly exciting enough, showing a group of gang members gunned down in the ultraviolet light of a tanning parlour. Fans of the gangster genre may be surprised, however, by the sharp dip in pace that the film takes directly after this. Much of the first hour is spent establishing the film's large number of characters and the scenarios that will carry the second half. Although the world of Gomorrah feels stunningly real - the film has almost no music and uses hand-held cameras - its complexity makes it more than a little confusing to watch.
The film's most memorable scene is in a flooded field some distance from the city, where the wannabe gangsters Marco and Ciro, intoxicated by joy and power, fire recently discovered mafia machine guns into the sky. The terrifying duo wander around the desolate landscape wearing only their underwear, screaming with pleasure as they fire off round after round into the dead air. The scene impressively captures the venal and dangerous world in which the boys live, where ill-educated psychopaths can easily acquire the tools to become kings and vanquish their enemies, if only for a short while.
Obvious comparisons can be made between Gomorrah and the Brazilian classic City of God or the bleak Parisian tale La Haine. Although it might sound unlikely, neither of these films comes close to the sense of painful realism or harrowing futility that exists in Gomorrah. However, this same devotion to realism makes Gomorrah less watchable than the other films. To achieve its documentary-like ends, Gomorrah sacrifices many things (it has none of the beautiful visual style of City of God, for example). Instead, the film lets the facts speak for themselves. Though it is perhaps a more noble aim, it is also a less enjoyable one. The film suffers from a lack of finish, and although the director Matteo Garrone clearly set out to make a movie that is uncomfortable to watch, the result is, at times, impenetrable and slightly boring.
Gomorrah offers very little resolution, presenting the simple reality that the problem of the Camorra is unlikely to disappear overnight. The film's complex storylines and strong performances impressively create a world that is being consumed by organised crime, but watching it feels less like sitting through a movie and more like watching hours of unedited documentary footage.