Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 22, 2008 4:24 pm 
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Marco and Ciro

Contemporary Naples' banality of evil

The intentional wordplay here links "Gomorrah," the biblical doomed city of moral depravity, and "Camorra," the enormously powerful and pervasive Naples-based center of southern Italy's organized crime.

There's a limit to how many stories you can be interested in at one time, which Garrone's Gomorrah surpasses. However his film, based on a selective adaptation by a half dozen writers working from Roberto Saviano's eponymous chronicle of the Neapolitan gangster network, the Camorra, is shot with an undeniably impressive speed and economy and certainly creates a continually punchy, realistic effect, working without emphatic plot elements, identifiable heroes, or any focus on the role, active or passive, of law enforcement. One scene follows another, each full of action and vivid characters. Garrone, whose previous features were the atmospheric, if little known 2002 The Embalmer (L'imbalsamatore) and the edgy, off-putting 2004 Primo amore , enlisted professional actors working together with ordinary citizens, gang operatives, and ex-cons for roles in the film, which arguably achieves a new level of authenticity in the gangster genre.

Notably the protagonists here are the innocent and the young. There are no Godfathers here, no heirs to great fortunes, only the little people, the recruits, the petty functionaries, the enforcers--the little soldiers, much like the protagonist played by Luigi Lo Cascio in Andrea Porporati's more conventional 2007 film, The Bitter and the Sweet (Il dolce e l'amaro). There's a keen sense of how Italian organized crime continues to suck in the new generations. It's capitalism: money comes first, morality much, much later--a very up-to-date concept.

There are five main plotlines.

Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), called Il Sottomarino (The Submarine), is a portasoldi; he has the job of personally doling out cash payments to families of clan members who're in jail. He works quietly and discreetly, never rocking the boat or playing favorites. But when a feud causes a split in the clan, he doesn't know who he's working for any more, and suddenly making his formerly routine rounds becomes extremely dangerous.

Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) is a young teenager, delicate-looking but ballsy. He's just a grocery delivery boy, but he knows what's going on, the killings, the weapons, the drugs in his gang-domincated neighborhood, and he can't wait to be a part of it all. His iron nerve leads him to be chosen as a fledgling gang member, his appearance of innocence becomes an asset, and he winds up having to betray someone who was a friend, or at least a trusting customer.

Marco and Ciro (actual Camorra recruits Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) are two slightly older youths full of bravado; they want to be independent marauders preying on the system and pretend they're living a sequence from De Palma's Scarface. They get away with robbing a gang of Colombian coke dealers and intercept a hidden arms cache, but when their games get the local Camorra's attention, their number is up. One of the film's memorable, risk-taking sequences shows Marco and Ciro in jockey shorts in a mud plain firing off live automatic weapons and flame throwers.

Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) is a young university graduate in need of work. Franco (veteran actor Toni Servillo) offers him steady employment and good earning prospects in the field of waste management. Gradually he realizes that the Camorra controls this. It's paying farmers and landowners to supply their property for the dumping of toxic waste that is sickening the population and destroying crops. He is disgusted and is apparently able to walk away.

Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is an experienced but underpaid tailor who works sub rosa for a small enterprise sub contracted to the high fashion industry. Chinese competitors give him the opportunity to come in secretly to teach the refinements of his trade to their workers. They contract him to surreptitiously give a series of ten well-paid "lessons" to the Asian workers and he is pleased with the generous payments and flattered when they call him "maestro." But his enterprise is affiliated with the Camorra. He is aiding the enemy. He is in big trouble. He barely escapes with his life.

These are the five stories that are constantly inter-cut with each other through the course of the 137-minute running time--somewhat in Altmanesque fashion, but never overlapping. The effect is absorbing, but a little numbing; as film blogger Glenn Kenny has noted, the film is "both banal and shattering." A documentary could convey more specific information and history--and Saviano, whose book publication necessitated his being put under police protections, was himself involved in one, Enrico Caria's 2007 See Naples and Die (Vedi Napoli e poi muori). A conventional Mafia/Camorra narrative film, or a differently cherry-picked adaptation of Saviano's book, could show more about the impact on families and the community and the involvement of the police in Italian organized crime. The wider fallout of the five stories is only touched on.

There is fresh information here however, especially for non-Italian viewers--such as the presence of a whole sweatshop of Asian workers competing with the Camorra-run rag trade, and Colombians on the fringes selling cocaine independently, while coke is controlled and doled out by Italian gangsters. There's also a taste of the vastness of the Camorra's immensely lucrative and completely criminal waste disposal business--a subject thoroughly explored in the 2007 Italian documentary by Esmeralda Calabria, Andrea D'Ambrosio and Peppe Ruggiero, Biùtiful Cauntri. An amazing scene shows Africans refusing to drive some big trucks that have gotten into some trouble and the gangsters bringing in a handful of Italian kids to drive them out, kids so small they have to be propped up on cushions behind the wheel.

Good stuff, if rather off-putting for the average movie-goer, this is so far without an American distributor but has received much attention at festivals, including the Grand Prize at Cannes. UK release by Optimum Releasing begins October 10. Shown at Cannes, Toronto, and the NYFF. Largely in thick Neopolitan dialect, this was shown in Italy with subtitles.


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