Fired by Obama’s victory last week, I was all set to see W. But then I got thinking – why go see a movie about a dull has-been, one who history will not treat kindly. By all accounts the film lets him off quite lightly. The shock death of Miriam Makeba, Mama Afrika, at a concert in Naples in support of Roberto Saviano, author of the book and screenplay for Gomorra, and who has been in hiding from the Camorra ever since, seemed a more fitting tribute for the week.
Don’t be fooled by thinking this is another gangster movie (the trailer might lead you astray on this); it is a docudrama based on the nefarious activities of the Camorra and set in its heartland, Naples. The pun of Camorra/Gomorra is no accident – Naples is portrayed more like a living hell than a European city of culture; we could be in any war torn city in the world – Beruit, Groznyy, Baghdad.
The film loosely follows five intertwined threads of everyday life in Camorra-land, where utter depravity, amorality and violence are the currency of everyday life. The opening scene set in a tanning salon and lit by soft UV light, emits a sense of menace and expectation which continues throughout, aided and abetted by shaky hand-held camera shots as we follow our five stories.
Cut to Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a normal thirteen-year-old boy – so normal he is in an England number 7 shirt – delivering groceries for his mama to the impoverished families who inhabit the once futuristic, but now decayed and burned-out, tenements. Toto’s ambition is to join the firm – his initiation involves being shot at, albeit it wearing a bullet-proof vest. ‘Now you are a man’ – with these words ringing in his ears, he examines his bruise on his hairless chest and we know he is doomed for life.
The message of the film is clear: no one can escape the tentacles of the Camorra – whether you are Toto, who has to betray his friend’s mother; the tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) who moonlights for the Chinese immigrants or the two silly lads (Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone) who we first see playing Scarface and who think they are men enough to take on the mob, steal their weapons, and carry out hold-ups. To some extent their story is the most poignant, with their squeaky and childlike voices, their love of guns and shooting and obvious low intellect. They are true victims of the system.
They are not the only foolish boys to take on the bosses: the Camorra is split over drugs and territory and a younger faction has split off, their families burned out or evicted if they are lucky, made an example of if not. There are some marvellous scenes which use non-professionals, pot-bellied, dressed in beach shorts and flowery shirts (some now under arrest for Camorra-linked crimes), where the old guys work out how to take on the young pretenders. Into this war strolls the faithful bag carrier, Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who doles out the weekly pay to the ‘family’ and whose loyalty is compromised to save his skin. Everyone has a price.
The fifth strand centres around Naples – and Italy’s – most notorious activity: waste disposal. Franco (Toni Servillo) an urbane mobster is filling a huge quarry with toxic waste, and has no qualms in using local kids to drive the trucks following an accidental spillage that leaves a worker looking like a character out of Dr Who. In a telling scene, where Franco and his sidekick Roberto have been negotiating to buy more land for waste disposal, an old lady gives them a basket of peaches. Roberto is ordered to chuck them as they are toxic, and at that moment he throws in the towel, he is not cut out for this kind of work. Reminiscent of Satan tempting Christ in the wilderness, Franco points to all the land, the houses and the wealth he has brought to the area. Roberto, like us, wonders at what cost.
The credits for the film tell us at exactly what cost: how high the piles of toxic waste would be if measured; how much of Italy’s business is controlled by the Camorra and that they are investors in the Twin Towers. Despite the film’s length and complexity, the difficulty of working out the characters – these are distractions. Gomorra is a powerful indictment of a way of life in a 21stEuropean country that its authorities are powerless – or powerful enough – to control.
No wonder Saviano is in hiding.