by Michael Covino
From Film Quarterly Summer 2009, Vol. 62, No. 4
Our first night in Naples, a little past midnight, my wife and I were woken by several gunshots, followed by a woman screaming in English, “He’s still alive! He’s still alive!” We looked out the eighth-floor window of our hotel, as did many of the residents of the apartment high-rise opposite us, and waited for the anticipated sirens and flashing police lights. After all, we were only a block from the downtown police headquarters near the Bay of Naples—the police headquarters that, in Midnight in Sicily (Vintage, 1996), Australian journalist Peter Robb described as built by Mussolini “in fascist modernist monumental style, [and among] the city’s only decent new buildings in the last hundred years.” Yes, high praise indeed: Mussolini gave Naples some of its only decent architecture. But then architecture — or the brutal lack of decent or hospitable architecture—is what Naples, and by extension Gomorrah, are about.
That happened some eight years ago when my wife and I vacationed in southern Italy. At that time my main filmic reference for Naples was native Francesco Rosi’s great Hands Over the City (1963), a frenetic nightmare about political corruption in the construction rackets that, since then, have rendered Naples the most densely populated and ugliest city in western Europe, home to 3.5 million and crammed with ramshackle high-rises, many of them built illegally, many of which look as though the slightest tremor would topple them. And if Gomorrah has an antecedent it would be Hands Over the City, which opens with a sweeping pan of some of these hideous Neapolitan high-rises. In black-and-white, the film documents the city’s construction rackets, the collaboration of the gangster-controlled city council, the fraud that goes into putting up these buildings—and one of which, scheduled for demolition, was collapsed during the filming. Yet despite the unbridled corruption, the film, unlike Gomorrah, radiates a warmth; Rosi is still in love with his native city though he’s painting a portrait of the sleaze and fraud that would result, nearly half a century later, in the disaster portrayed in Gomorrah.
Rosi never mentions the Camorra in his film, perhaps because the plague of heroin and cocaine had not yet arrived to make the clans so rich and powerful, but in a follow-up thirty years later, his documentary Neapolitan Diary (1992) —shot on the occasion of a screening of Hands Over the City at the University of Naples School of Architecture — he does. In fact, people in the movie—professors, students, bureaucrats, city officials—can’t shut up about the Camorra and how it has destroyed Naples. Rosi himself, in a 2004 interview with CinemaCittà, a journal of architecture, urban studies, cinema, and communications out of the University of Reggio Calabria (included in the booklet for the Criterion DVD), said, “in the criminal underworld, the Camorra, which is different than the [Sicilian] Mafia but still criminal, exerts extraordinary power over the economy, more so than over politics. The Mafia has always had enormous power over politics, more so than over the economy.”
But perhaps even more interesting in reference to Gomorrah are the opening shots of Neapolitan Diary: a gliding aerial pan from a helicopter of the awful high-rises, reminiscent of the opening pan of Hands Over the City, the camera then tracking in on a housing development that looks suspiciously like the setting for much of Gomorrah, followed by a cut to the breezeways of the development it-self—yes, the resemblance is not just generic but genetic— where teenage criminals have just been rounded up in a real-life police sweep.
The day after the shooting incident, my wife and I drove to my grandmother’s ancestral village in the mountains northeast of Naples. On the way back we missed the turnoff for the autostrada and wound up on a back road running through the countryside. Then at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of beautiful—and, as it turns out, poisoned — farm fields, we came upon a half-dozen big-rigs parked along the shoulder, and four or five tall ebony African hookers strutting back and forth on platform heels, and in gold and silver lamé hot pants. It looked like a scene out of Fellini scripted by Pasolini, and my wife and I debated whether they were transvestites or members of the tall-statured Tutsi group. (Gomorrah includes a small nod to Fellini, to La dolce vita , when the statue of a saint is lowered by rope into the courtyard of a decrepit apartment complex bustling with drug traffic — call it La malavita.)
We reentered Naples through the densely populated outskirts, that nightmare of dilapidated high-rise apartment buildings that ring the city center and that Rosi documented so well, and that provide the setting for much of Gomorrah. I grew up in the Bronx and at its worst the South Bronx never looked so bad. The buildings are crammed in helter-skelter, the landscaping minimal, the streets choked with traffic. Prior to our trip I had read in a travel guide that in Naples (not Rome, not Palermo) traffic lights are a mere suggestion. I thought that an exaggeration until the first time I stopped at a red light and the six drivers behind me all sat on their horns until I drove through, whereupon they followed. Later, strolling along the via Toledo packed with its street merchants, we noticed some vendors sold white T-shirts with diagonal black bars across the fronts—so if a traffic cop glanced at you he would think you were wearing a seat belt. That’s the lawlessness at its most mundane.
Based on the best-selling journalistic exposé of the same name by Roberto Saviano, director Matteo Garrone’s postneorealist docudrama Gomorrah provides a searing look into the Camorra, the loose confederation of criminal gangs who more or less rule Naples and the surrounding Campanian countryside. Even though set in southern Italy, on the Mediterranean, it’s shot in somber colors: washed-out grays, blues, and browns. The movie looks dirty and feels dirtier. Although it opens, improbably, in a tanning salon where everyone is bathed in a blue alien light. You’d think they were on a spaceship—call it neosurrealism—or at least until the film’s first massacre goes down in the salon.
And so it goes. As these colorless gangsters, largely devoid of personality, deal drugs in the ugly housing developments, dole out welfare payments to families of imprisoned members, enforce discipline with murders, run whorehouses, and dump toxic wastes all over the beautiful Campanian countryside—over the lands where the buffalos, who produce the dioxin-laden milk for mozzarella, roam (I stopped buying Italian mozzarella after reading the book), a vivid if depressing portrait emerges of gangs so shortsighted they have turned their own city into the heroin capital of Europe and seem never to have learned the axiom, “You don’t crap where you eat.”
Garrone intercuts and dramatizes five stories from the book, one of which involves a talented but underpaid working-class dress designer who creates top gowns in a clandestine Camorra factory for celebrities like Scarlet Johansson who he sees at an awards ceremony on TV wearing his cream-colored creation (in the book, oddly, it’s Angelina Jolie)—and who is blissfully unaware that her haute couture gown does not hail from a top Italian design house. Another story involves a mousy, nervewracked, middle-aged Camorra bagman (do not think Michael Clayton) who delivers payments to the families of imprisoned camorristi. Not a bad person, along his route he helps a woman whose apartment has been flooded by a broken pipe, a simple mess compared to the mess, the massacre, he later finds himself tiptoeing out of, past a half-dozen or so corpses he was just chatting with a minute earlier. And in yet another story, set in the same locale, we see a gangster cutting drugs in a blender, test-tasting it, then chasing the taste with a shot of sambuca. The narcotics get sold in the massive, blocky, decrepit Vele di Sampi housing projects of their neighborhood, setting for much of the movie, with lookouts posted all around, no different really than any drug operation from the housing projects of New York City to those of Oakland, California.
For me, though, the most powerful of the five stories— and, on the face of it, the least violent—involves waste-disposal management. In the acclaimed HBO series The Sopranos, about a New Jersey crime family of Neapolitan ancestry, Tony Soprano’s “legitimate” business was as a waste-disposal manager. But his garbage racket was small potatoes compared to the scale and scope of what we see in Gomorrah. The film’s only character who comes across with any cheer, any personality, is a Camorra waste manager, a middle-aged man played by Toni Servillo. Unlike the other gangsters, he’s usually in good spirits as he travels the countryside with his young apprentice Roberto (played by Carmine Paternoster and modeled on the author—who incidentally plays a large role in the book but is otherwise absent from the film). They check out abandoned gas stations, abandoned quarries, and other sites, looking for places to dump the poisonous wastes hauled in from all over Italy, and Roberto visits potential sites on his computer. At one place, a drum breaks open splashing toxic waste on a truck driver, badly burning him. The other truckers quit and after learning the African workers don’t even know how to drive, the waste manager, resourceful if nothing else, hires eleven- and twelve-year-old local kids, who pile the pillows beneath their behinds so they can reach the steering wheel and see out the windshield.
At one stop on his itinerary, the older man accepts a basket of peaches from an elderly woman. “What beautiful peaches! Thank you, signora,” he says, and we don’t realize immediately what a chilling moment it is. A little later, on the drive back to Naples, he tells Roberto, “Toss that stuff. Can’t you tell how they stink?” Yes, poisonous fruit from the lost Campanian Eden. (By the time we see topless dancers we figure their balloon breasts are toxic-waste sites too.) Roberto, to his credit, makes the one moral choice in the movie: disgusted with the work, he quits. His mentor gives a little speech, almost verbatim from the book: “Does this job disgust you? Robbe’, do you know that we are the ones who made it possible for this shit country to enter the European Union? … Do you know how many workers’ asses have been saved because I fixed it so their companies didn’t spend a fucking cent [on legal waste disposal]?” And the older man mutters, “Go fuck yourself. Go make pizza.” Which is, in its way, ironic, since pizza, not toxic waste, is Naples’ most beloved gift to the world.
The last of the five intercut stories involves two older teens, Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (Marco Macor), who so aspire to the thug life they’ve memorized parts of Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). “I’m Tony Montana,” one kid shouts, apparently forgetting how he winds up. These two teens are so puffed up with self-importance they think they’re a gang onto themselves: they rip off local Colombian drug dealers, they rip off weapons from the hidden cache of the neighborhood Camorra gang and then, wading in the marshes in nothing but their underpants, have fun firing their newly acquired toys. Call them Dumb and Dumber. The local boss reads them the riot act and gives them a day to return the weapons, but they make the mistake of not taking him seriously. In his book Saviano provides his own filmic analogy, comparing their end to that of Joe Pesci’s character in Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), where he shows up for what he believes will be his formal induction into a Mafia family but instead is executed for his unauthorized murder of a made Mafia man. To the camorristi who work out the logistics of disposing of these teenagers, the whole thing is just a distraction: “[All this] for two kids … what a waste of time.” Then one man, wearing shorts, climbs into the cabin of a bulldozer whose blade has been loaded with their corpses and rumbles off down the beach. Just another consignment of illegal toxic waste to be dumped.
When I first saw GoodFellas I complained in an East Bay Express review that, unlike Scorsese’s earlier Mean Streets (1973) and Raging Bull (1980), it lacked heart. But for all that, Gomorrah makes GoodFellas look like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1962). It is that cold and heartless. Despite the numerous killings, the movie proceeds undramatically, replete with matter-of-fact anarchy and chaos. At least Good-Fellas’ gangsters still liked their Italian food.
Which is probably why Gomorrah has been hailed as shattering any romantic myths we may yet harbor about gangsters. Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times that it’s “ferociously unsentimental … a bracing corrective to the sentimentalized Mafia thug popularized on both the big and small screens.” Kenneth Turan wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Gomorrah “is a gangster film that departs from the glamorizing norm … a vividly panoramic film about a pitiless world of criminality.” And Christy Lemire wrote for the Associated Press that Gomorrah “upends everything you think you know about the mob and mob movies.” All of which is true enough. Yet to be sure, I no longer know what the “glamorizing norm” is, since this sort of praise is periodically bestowed on gangster films. One year after The Godfather (1972), Francesco Rosi’s own gangster film Lucky Luciano starring Gian Maria Volonté in the title role was released, and Giovanni Grazzini wrote in Corriere della sera on October 20, 1973, “What distinguishes Rosi’s film from others on the Mafia is its refusal to glamorize the liturgy of violence.” So then: glamorize, deglamorize … glamorize, deglamorize … That is, there’s a deglamorizing norm too.
Yet when all is said and done, what for me is most shocking about Gomorrah is the book is still more shocking. Not that it tells you where the bodies are buried but, rather, where the toxic wastes come from and go to—the wastes which have led, as the movie’s end credits tell us, to higher levels of cancer, higher levels of kidney failure, higher numbers of tumors, etc., etc., in the local populations. And the arms depots! The stash of automatic weapons that the two teenagers rip off is peanuts compared to the transactions enumerated in the book. On the heels of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, Camorra sales representatives were all over the globe, cutting deals with former Communist officials for major weapons purchases; acquiring arms and explosives for Spain’s Basque separatists in exchange for cocaine they imported from South American leftist guerrilla groups; offering the Argentine military major arms for their Falkland Islands war against the British; and more. What for me the movie lacked, with the exception of the toxic-waste story, is the sheer scale of the misery visited upon Naples, Campania, and the world by the Camorra clans, and that scale includes the dehumanizing architectural nightmare that Rosi shows in long sweeping pans, and that can only be captured in long sweeping pans.
Incidentally, our first night in Naples after the gunshots, the police never came. We went back to sleep and the next morning I asked at the front desk about the shooting. Shrugs all around. No one had heard a thing.
MICHAEL COVINO, author of the novel The Negative (Viking Press, 1993), is a former film critic for the East Bay Express.