Martin Scorsese played a role in getting the 2008 Italian crime drama, “Gomorrah,” theatrically distributed in the United States the following year, despite the fact that director Matteo Garrone’s film explicitly critiques the way that Hollywood crime dramas such as Scorsese’s “GoodFellas” (1990) and Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” (1983) have added a patina of glamour to the dirty business of organized crime.
Scorsese and DePalma never intended their films to be an inspiration to would-be young criminals all over the globe, but that has been the result of their fantastic directorial skills and the charismatic screen presence of stars like Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino.
Early in “Gomorrah,” we meet two dumb and foolish young men in Naples who know “Scarface” backwards and forwards and who act out scenes from the movie in an unfinished penthouse apartment.
One of the guys sports a garish Hawaiian shirt just like the one Pacino wears in the DePalma picture. We hear his imitation (in Italian) of Pacino’s heavy Cuban accent as Tony Montana (this is one of the oddest examples of criss-crossing cultural “globalization” I’ve ever seen in a movie).
The boys want to be gangsters but are painfully ignorant about the differences between crime as dramatized in Hollywood and the real workings of the Camorra in Italy (the title is a apt pun — what we see in the 137 minute drama often looks like a Biblical vision of hell on earth).
Garrone worked from a non-fiction expose by Roberto Saviano (death threats from the Camorra resulted in permanent police protection for the author). The filmmaker crosscuts between multiple plot lines, so that we can see the personal, political and even environmental cost of organized crime in Italy.
In addition to the plotline about the two movie-fixated young men, there is a harrowing account of a dressmaker who decides to moonlight as a teacher for some Chinese immigrant workers who want to get into the Italian fashion business; a tale of a very young boy who becomes an apprentice to the Camorra in the vast housing project where he delivers groceries; and an account of a powerful gangster who secretly disposes of dangerous waste materials for various industries trying to get around government environmental regulations.
The violence is not as graphic as the big setpieces in the DePalma and Scorsese classics, but it is much more disturbing because of the way that Garrone stages these scenes.
People get killed suddenly without the standard suspense mechanisms of Hollywood. In the final, and most upsetting scene, Garrone turns our movie-conditioned ideas of suspense against us — quickly throwing away the long build-up to a double murder and then having the characters disposed of like a pile of garbage.
Garrone borrows from a variety of movie sources to come up with his own gritty style. There are echoes of the shocking brutality of one of the first neorealist dramas, Roberto Rossellini’s “Open City” (1945). The movie’s you-are-there documentary-style realism might remind you of Gillo Pontecorvo’s stunning “The Battle of Algiers” (1965). And the way that Garrone personalizes sweeping cultural and political forces is sometimes reminiscent of Luchino Visconti’s 1960 epic “Rocco and His Brothers.”