An ambitious, sprawling picture about the epic swirl of Italy’s criminal underbelly, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah does an excellent job of depicting just how many cookie jars the Camorra (a sweeping crime family organization centered in Naples) have their grubby paws in. Most mafioso films heavily focus on the bloodshed and brotherhood, either with stylistic flourishes (Goodfellas, Casino) or somber craftsmanship (The Godfather(s), Donnie Brasco). Gomorrah, however, is all about scope, with the aforementioned topics playing supplementary roles. Weaving five simultaneous stories together, Gomorrah dives headfirst into Naples’ endless darkness. From young Totò, the 13-year old antithesis of Peter Pan (he just can’t wait to grow up), to tailor Pasquale, a skilled craftsman who sneaks away from his Italian brethren to train Chinese competitors at great personal risk, everyone has roots in this cruel, soulless world. And it’s the rare root that’s not firmly planted.
With faded colors and grim lighting, Garrone paints an overwhelmingly dispiriting portrait of the Comorra’s impact on daily life. Only once does brightness peek into Gomorrah‘s world, illustrating a rare moment of fun that’s for all the wrong reasons: Marco & Ciro, two teenage friends who fashion themselves rebellious loners, get their hands on a treasure trove of guns (Uzi’s, M16′s, and even a bazooka), and proceed to unload on an empty lake, letting out blood-curdling screams after every shot. Dressed in shiny underwear, the boys in this sequence represent the only time in Gomorrah where characters appear to be enjoying themselves. The rest of the picture is a myriad of reprehensible mobsters coldly carrying out criminal missions. There’s not a trace of optimism to be found; only one person (Robert, a university graduate with a passion for honest work) confronts a local leader and quits the business, due to a weak stomach and nagging conscience, and after everything we’ve seen from these guys, it’s impossible to believe he’ll seamlessly shift to a normal life.
It’s fascinating to see how tightly run the Camorra’s ship is, and how much power the organization boasts—almost like a combination of a monarchy and dictatorship in its absolute power. And it’s chilling to learn that the Camorra’s numerous reinvestments include the Twin Towers’ reconstructions (much of their blood money is pumped back into legitimate businesses). But Gomorrah, for all its excellent qualities, has a major drawback—a serious lack of cohesion and flow. Large chunks of this 135 minute film could be sliced without Gomorrah‘s overarching message losing any cinematic power; it runs about 40 minutes too long. It’s questionable if all five stories contribute uniquely to the themes, as they frequently blur together. Sure, each offers its own subplot, but they’re not intriguing enough to warrant the bloated runtime. Ultimately, though, Gomorrah is certainly worthwhile viewing, and stamps director Matteo Garrone as an up-and-comer to keep an eye on.