Gomorra: Criterion Collection DVD

Post date: Jan 10, 2010 7:31:11 AM

I had the pleasure of seeing this stunning film by Italian director Matteo Garrone last year at Boardman's Art Theatre in Champaign, which technically is no longer (The same building is now simply The Art Theatre). At the end of Gomorra -- a pun on the biblical damned city and the real-life Italian organized crime group known as the Camorra -- I felt like I was just beginning to understand the film. The parts were still rattling around in my head on the drive home . . .

From our perspective, the movie has no real hero, which by itself makes Gomorra difficult to follow. American viewing audiences are used to understanding a story through the eyes of its heroes -- or even anti-heroes -- yet Gomorra is too gritty and realistic to offer either. Then you factor in the multiple, disconnected storylines that rarely, if ever, meet up:

    • The two teenage punks who fantasize about becoming modern-day Tony Montanas. They find themselves in deep shit for raiding a mafia weapons stash and holding up video game parlors. You have to feel sorry for them . . . It's hard to take a guy nicknamed Sweet Pea seriously.
    • Don Ciro, a graying mob soldier whose job is to deliver money to protected families. The real chore is putting up with everyone griping about how small their cuts are. The look on this actor's face is one of perpetual constipation. It's great. Things in Naples heat up, though, and he wants out of the war.
    • Pasquale is a tailor of fancy dresses financed by a man with Camorra connections. He is an artist, a lover, a dreamer: the man for whom we might have the most sympathy. Gang and racial divisions mean nothing to him, as he accepts the offer from a Chinese factory owner looking for an expert -- a "maestro" -- to train the amateur dressmakers. Even he isn't innocent, though, as he'd be out on the street without mob money investing in the business.
    • Two Camorra men -- one veteran, one rookie -- are charged with the task of hiding toxic waste. (The details on where the waste came from is not clear to me. That's something I might know if I were Italian and understood the references.) They do so by buying up land tracts that were once quarries, filling them up with hundreds of barrels, and burying them in tons of dirt.
    • Totò is a boy stuck between two worlds. There is the main group of the Camorra, which generally runs the massive, rotting apartment complex where he lives and delivers groceries. Then there is the "secessionist" group, which he joins after proving himself by returning a gun and bag of cash a secessionist dropped during a firefight with police. This forces him to move out of his mother's home and turn his back on his best friend, who now insists they're enemies.

As you can imagine, with all those intercut narratives sewn together in two hours and some change, it's going to take some time to adjust. Gomorra is one you need to watch a second time to fully absorb.

On the other hand, it's one of those grimy movies you appreciate but don't exactly want to view twice in one day. Intentionally so, I would assume, as it discards all the mafia glamor found in The Godfather series and the Hollywood gangster films that followed. Don't get me wrong: I love Martin Scorsese mafia movies. But Garrone's film seems so raw, so jagged, such a refutation of the polished look and nostalgic charm of, say, Goodfellas, that I find it very surprising that it could be a "Martin Scorsese Presents" movie. There's no awesome scene where you cheer on Joe Pesci as he stabs an old coot with a big mouth in a bar. There are plenty of killings, but they don't feel romanticized. What you do feel is the powerlessness of these people born into dire circumstances, living like wild dogs.

Naturally, it's not as overwhelming in home viewing as it was in theater, what without a massive screen or state of the art sound system. Fortunately, Criterion did its best to make up for the changed experience with a ton of extra goodies. There are six deleted scenes, none of them bad; interviews with the actors, director, and source material author/journalist Roberto Saviano -- who has received death threats due to the success of his revealing book; and a one-hour making of documentary.

These special features are particularly interesting because we learn that filming Gomorra was, in a way, a community effort. Garrone was able to work with actual Camorristas to capture the little details that bring films to life. Actors' "dressing rooms" were often occupied apartments, and locals would often argue with each other about whether or not the filming was accurate. Garrone also has a neat directorial style: he carries his own camera and becomes like another actor in pre-filming rehearsals. Though he has a strong vision of how each scene should look, the actors reveal that the script is often thrown out the window in favor of guided improvisation. Most of the actors are actual actors, not the "real thing," which Garrone explains is because "real people" tend to act unreal on camera. Saviano also provides a great interview, in which he concludes on the fascinating point that gangster cinema affects the way that real gangsters perceive themselves. The best way for black market guns to raise in demand is for them to be used in a popular gangster movie.

By the way -- seriously, how does a movie join the Criterion Collection seven months after reaching limited release in the U.S.? What a testament to this chilling work of cinematic art.

On a side note: Big ups to the Edwardsville Public Library for having this DVD. According to Amazon, it just came out on November 24. That's a pretty fast moving new foreign film pick-up, for a Metro-East library. For Alton people, checking this out is as simple as ordering it at Hayner or swinging by the Edwardsville Library (corner of Vandalia & Kansas Streets in downtown E-ville) next time you're on the way home from Showplace 12, or wherever. Your Hayner card works there.

Comments VI