Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah is tough and totally brilliant. It’s a nasty, unflinching piece of filmmaking, and because it stays so focused and refuses to ever get sentimental there’s a hardened quality to the storytelling that’s unique for the genre. Now, is it an “entertaining” mafia saga along the lines of Goodfellas or Casino or The Godfather? Not remotely. As impeccably made as it is, Gomorrah is a punishing and depressing look at real-deal organized crime in Naples, Italy. Based on a bestselling and highly controversial true-crime novel which ended up requiring the author (and members of the eventual film production) to go into witness protection, Gomorra is essentially the Italian version of City of God, in that it takes you on a hellish journey to a very violent corner of the earth and rubs your face in vicious behaviors and unremorseful killing. And that, really, is the essence of Gomorrah: The act of killing and how it affects so many different people. Death, as it is in all gangster tales, hangs over this film like the Grim Reaper itself, and as the narrative progresses, you slowly realize that there’s no hope for anyone in the story.
You half expect any of the characters to get bumped off at any moment while the riveting action unfolds; the phrase “always looking over your shoulder” is a sad reality for everyone in Gomorrah. The film effortlessly weaves five separate storylines together. Two young punks who love reciting dialogue from Brian De Palma’s bloody classic Scarface are anxious to become real-life hoodlums, and are blissfully unaware of the real dangers that they face. An illegal garment maker who has perfected his trade through various crime circles starts trading his knowledge to the Chinese in exchange for cash; you can imagine how pissed the Italians will be with this. Two youngsters are drafted into a life crime after doing petty jobs for the higher-ups, and here, you get a look at the organization’s money-man, who becomes increasingly conflicted with his job as the film progresses. And finally, there is the toxic-waste disposal element to the narrative, which is equally as troubling as any of the other segments.
The hand-held, down and dirty aesthetic is reminiscent to that of The Battle of Algiers, as director Garrone immerses you in the scummy, crime-filled environment and forces you to see everything at ground level and face value. There is immediacy and sad impact to the violence in Gomorrah, which features a bracing level of coldness on display from the various killers, which is rather startling. It’s all part of the business – killing just comes with the territory. And even though almost all of the characters are unlikable, you watch with a growing sense of dread as it becomes all but certain that everyone will end up meeting their maker before the end credits start to roll. This isn’t an easy or commercial gangster movie like the films I referenced earlier. Instead, it’s a brutal look at a real-world scenario that’s going on right now, one that’s been going on for years, right under our noses. Gomorrah takes you to hell and back, and there is an uncompromising sense of inevitability and visceral impact in the film that forces the viewer to take notice.