Remember the voiceover Ray Liotta delivers at the beginning of Goodfellas as his character’s ushered through the kitchen of a crowded nightclub and seated at a table just inches from the stage? “For us to live any other way was nuts. If we wanted something, we just took it. To me being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.”
This is what moviegoers have come to think of as the mobster lifestyle. The celebrity treatment accorded in that film. The organized criminal hierarchy depicted in Casino. The devotion to family central to The Godfather. Well, think again.
As we learn in Matteo Garrone’s award-winning Gomorrah, there is not only another mob but another, infinitely less glamorous mode of gangster existence. American movies on the subject have been based on the Sicilian Mafia. This is the first picture to portray life inside the much larger, far more powerful and very real Neapolitan Mafia, also known as the Camorra (hence the title’s biblically inspired pun).
How scary are these dudes? The film is based on a 2006 exposé by journalist Roberto Saviano, who risked his life by going undercover and living among the organization’s soldiers. Today the writer lives under round-the-clock armed guard owing to the innumerable death threats he’s received. How big is the Camorra? Estimates put its revenues at $250 billion per year. How far does its influence reach? Saviano uncovered evidence that it has invested in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center.
You might imagine that life in a syndicate generating a quarter-trillion annually would be characterized by the luxury and privilege American wiseguys enjoy. But, ironically, most of the outfit’s members suffer from the same disadvantage as most citizens of the U.S.: Its wealth is controlled by the top 1 or 2 percent. Gomorrah offers a portrait of mob life so bleak, pitiless and downwardly mobile, one ponders why anyone with a frontal lobe would sign on.
The film intercuts five stories from Saviano’s book. Only one reminds me of anything I’ve seen before. It follows an angel-faced 13-year-old (Salvatore Abruzzese) as he ingratiates himself with thugs in the hope of entering their brotherhood, pretty much the way the central character did in A Bronx Tale.
Everything else about the movie is so alien, it might as well take place on another planet. The setting itself is like something out of dystopian sci fi. Most of the picture unfolds in the vicinity of a vast and dilapidated housing project. It’s a seamy, sordid underworld unto itself, and the astonishing thing is that it’s the real deal.
Called Vele di Sampi, the project is home base for a great deal of Comorra activity. It was so dangerous for Garrone to film there that he developed a system of shooting for brief periods early in the day and clearing out before the place’s occupants got up, had their morning crack and turned violent.
Other characters include an aging bag man (Gianfelice Imparato) who makes the rounds delivering payments to the families of imprisoned mobsters. You’d think his visits would be welcome occasions, but the bosses at the top are as cheap as they are cruel, and recipients take out their resentment on him.
A pair of teenaged chuckleheads (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) quote from Scarface, do blow and fantasize about overthrowing their bosses Tony Montana-style. Mysteriously, they’ve become the film’s signature characters, but I found their story the least interesting. Some people are too stupid to live. Meet two of them.
The long reach of the Camorra’s tentacles into unexpected places is brought home by the subplot in which Salvatore Cantalupo plays an overworked, underpaid couture tailor. One minute he’s placing his life in jeopardy by teaching at a rival Chinese sweatshop. The next, he’s watching on TV as Scarlett Johansson walks a red carpet wearing one of his creations.
Perhaps the movie’s most intriguing performance comes from Toni Servillo, as an urbane executive who controls a toxic-waste disposal business. In one scene, an unsuspecting client stresses the importance of the process’ being “green ... like they say in the United State.” Servillo reassures him with a smile guaranteed to send chills down your spine.
This is the face of the Camorra, the face of a man who buries poison in the fields of neighbors knowing the fruit picked years hence will kill their children. The face of a man capable of sitting undetected at a table signing WTC contracts. It is a face Garrone has introduced to the genre for the first time. Not the face of a Michael Corleone or a Tony Soprano, but a face in the crowd. In Gomorrah, that’s the shape evil takes: banal, avaricious and utterly without honor, fear or boundaries.