Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On DVD: "Gomorrah"

Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah is a film that requires, demands, and rewards our attention. In its opening sequences, it introduces a dizzying array of characters and potential plotlines, and expects us to keep everyone straight and figure out exactly what they’re up to. To a casual, disengaged viewer, these scenes may seem aimless. But an adjustment is required, to cinema from a foreign soil, free of the flat-footed explosion that plagues so much of American film. You have to focus on a film like this. Once you have, it works you over.

Director Garrone is one of six credited screenwriters; the film is adapted from the bestselling book by Roberto Saviano, which detailed the inner workings of organized crime in Naples, Italy so thoroughly and with such accuracy that Saviano became a marked man (he was given a permanent police escort by the Italian government). His focus is the Camorra, the oldest criminal organization in Italy (older than the Mafia, and arguably more powerful).

Garrone’s adaptation follows five of the multiple story threads from the book, spanning from kids on the street to men of power (think of it as a kind of Italian Wire). We meet Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a 13-year-old grocery delivery boy whose morals are quickly corrupted when he joins a street gang; Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), a pair of Scarface-quoting stick-up kids with a self-destructive streak; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor in the Camorra-controlled fashion industry who takes a high-paying risk when he begins training workers at a Chinese sweatshop; Franco (Toni Servillo), who coordinates the illegal dumping of toxic waste; and Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a powerless money man whose loyalties are clearly for sale.

The first words that blast across the screen are the most comforting ones imaginable in preface to a gangster film: “Martin Scorsese presents.” It’s easy to see why Scorsese took to the picture, with its dark criminal overtones, played out in a style that is simultaneously fresh and clearly steeped in the tradition of Italian neorealism. Garrone’s filmmaking is spare, clean, direct, no-nonsense; his organic camerawork manages to pull off the neat trick of being stylish without being showy (okay, the shot near the end that follows Marco and Ciro’s motorcycle is pretty showy). He uses no score and precious little source music, and he gets the kind of hyper-naturalistic performances from his cast that feel like documentary, like moments grabbed rather than staged (the bonus featurette spotlights a working method that not only encourages improvisation, but insists on it).

The picture has moments of warmth and flashes of humor, but they are fleeting; when the violence comes, in happens in a flash, and there is skill and real terror in the brutality. After a good ninety minutes of set-up and disparate storytelling, Garrone begins to pull the drawstrings, to bring the seemingly disconnected threads together into a searing, powerful conclusion that lands like a punch to the kidney. A palpable sense of cold anxiety pervades the closing passages, as each story slams into its inevitable conclusion; one might wish for an ending that holds out a little more hope, but that would be an artifice, a fraud. For these people, it was never gonna come out any other way.

Gomorrah’s scattershot storytelling may test even the most patient of viewers, and it does indeed drag in some spots. But when it pulls its far-flung elements together into a closing symphony of blood and dread, it is powerful, skilled filmmaking of the highest order.

"Gomorrah" hits DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, November 24th.

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