Gomorra becomes a better movie when you learn that it’s a brave indictment of an actual place.
The People Are the Place
A scripted drama shot in the style of cinema verité, Gomorra shows us little snippets of life. There are three-minute scenes of Italians from different classes — businessmen, craftsmen, kids, homemakers. In many of the scenes there is poverty — kids play in an abandoned parking garage because they don’t have a park. Sometimes there is violence — our characters witness a gang hit. Sometimes there is immorality — the man who runs a waste disposal company has to decide whether to take more toxic waste than he should, or lose the business to someone who will. But there are also normal, civilized people like the tailor who aspires to greatness and takes pride in his work.
It is probably 20 or 30 minutes before director Matteo Garrone comes back to the same character twice. That fails to draw us in very deeply at first, because we can’t tell whether we should become attached to anyone. It turns out to be a neat technique. Garrone is trying to portray an entire region as a character — not just an individual — so it takes 20 or 30 minutes to make the introduction.
Crime Doesn’t Pay
The title is a little puzzling at first, too, since only some of the citizens in the film deserve to be tarred with the notorious Biblical slander. It becomes much more clear and the movie gels into something better when you learn film’s setting is inspired by “the most corrupt community in Italy,” Camorra, where organized crime ruins lives for countless people. An end title explains that organized crime affects not only those directly involved, but those with legitimate business operating as fronts, and legitimate businesses forced to compete with them, and all their employees and craftsmen.
A powerful and close-knit organized crime syndicate is not likely to have any qualms about killing a filmmaker who tries to shine some light on their dark dealings. In fact, the movie gets even better if you do a little research after you see it. Garrone has been forced to take on bodyguards since the release of his film, after it won the Grand Prize prize at Cannes. Garrone put his life on the line to make this film, about people whose lives are constantly on the line, just by accident of their birth.
Keeping Your Distance
Gomorra is a very frank drama. There is not much subtext or metaphor, nor is there much intimacy with any individual character. Shots are framed at a medium distance and rarely in closeup. The visual style strives for objectivity, like a documentary witness. We do come to like some of the characters, and we do get caught up in their lives. But there is always a distance, as though the film wants to look at the group and not very closely at the individual.
That’s not a style that I generally like in the cinema, but Gomorra chooses it deliberately and uses it to its best effect.
Gomorra may not be everyone’s cup of tea — the style and the distance make it hard to really love this film. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent example of documentary-style drama, and a brave indictment to boot. Here’s hoping director Garrone doesn’t get dragged down by his subjects, and that he goes on to keep fighting the good fight. Exposing corruption and immorality is a noble cause.