In the suburbs of Naples, a group of middle aged men are gunned down while relaxing at a tanning salon. The 2008 Italian film, Gomorrah, opens with that shocking act of violence and, though we don’t ever learn much about the men who have just been killed or even why they were killed, we spend the next 137 minutes watching the ramifications of those murders.
The poorest neighborhoods of Naples have been plunged into violence as two rival clans of the Camorra go to war. (The Camorra is like the Mafia but even more violent.) We’re never quite sure who has gone to war with who or who is winning the war. For the most part, we’re usually not even sure who is allied with who. The details of the war are not as important as the people who are caught up in it.
For instance, there’s a 13 year-old boy named Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) who desperately wants to join one the clan-affiliated gangs. Toto has a job delivering groceries and, after he proves that he can be trusted by delivering a package of misplaced drugs to the gang, he allowed to join. Of course, he also has to help his new friends murder one of the people to whom he delivers groceries.
And then there’s Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who looks like quiet accountant but who has one of the most dangerous jobs around. He’s the guy who has to deliver money to the families of all of the clan members who have been arrested or killed. Having that money is dangerous, even for someone who doesn’t appear to have a violent bone in his body. One thing that Gomorrah quickly establishes is that, when it comes to the Camorra, there is no honor. Everything that we’ve been led to believe about organized crime having any sort of code is a lie. Everyone is a target, even the ones who appear to just be timid bankers.
Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo)) is a tailor who takes a job training Chinese garment workers. Because the Chinese workers are directly competing with the Camorra-owned factories, Pasquale soon discovers that his life is in danger. He even has to hide in the trunk of a car so that he can be safely smuggled into work each night. It’s a dangerous world but Pasquale’s story does conclude with one of the film’s best and most darkly humorous moments.
Franco (Toni Servillo) works in waste management, hauling away people’s garbage and then secretly dumping it where it won’t be discovered until long after it’s poisoned the soil. Franco’s business may be funded by criminals and he may be destroying the Earth but Franco still very proud of himself. He’s the type of hard worker who built Italy’s economy. Without him, Italy would be dependent upon other countries for its survival. Franco is the type of man who makes Italy and therefore Europe great.
And finally, there’s Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two teenage morons who love Scarface and who think that they’re destined to become master criminals just like Tony Montana. Hoping to impress the clans, they commit a series of progressively violent crimes. Even as the Camorra plots a violent retribution for the two of them, the two teens are too busy playing on the beach, stripping down to their underwear and firing off rifles, to understand. It’s easy to dismiss these two as just being idiots who are in over their heads but what else is there for them? They live in one of the poorest neighborhoods in all of Europe, There are no economic opportunities. There’s no chance for any sort of advancement. They’re trapped, prisoners of both their birth and their circumstances. They can either try to be gangsters or they can just be passive observers. Either way, there’s a good chance they’ll get caught in the crossfire. When the choice is between being a victim and victimizer, is it such a shock that the two of them would want to be the latter?
Gomorrah is a gritty crime film, shot in a documentary-style with a largely nonprofessional cast and featuring scenes of sudden and shocking violence. Unlike most mafia movies (though the Camorra is not the same as the Mafia that we know here in the United States), Gomorrah is barely concerned with the mobsters. Instead, its focus is on those who have to live around them, the indirect victims of their nonstop vendettas. The film understands that its audience is probably full of people like Marco and Ciro, people who can quote Scarface but who have no understanding of the actual damage that has been done by organized crime. Gomorrah sets out to correct the record and it does a pretty good job of it.
Gomorrah is a harrowing but effective film, one that shows how poverty breeds crime and crime, for the most part, just breeds more poverty. To its credit, the film doesn’t offer up any easy solutions. Instead, it just asks us to acknowledge the reality of what’s happening all around.