Two young, naive stick-up guys run around a vacant building yelling, “I’m Tony Montana!” in the Italian mob movie Gomorrah. The transnational popularity of Al Pacino’s Scarface demonstrates the extent to which films can glorify organized crime. (I see young people wearing Tony Montana hoodies at my neighborhood library all the time.) Even in warts-and-all portraits such as Goodfellas and “The Sopranos,” the strippers-and-cash rush of thug life sticks in the memory longer than the cautionary messages.
Not a scintilla of glamour gleams from Gomorrah, a sprawling, journalistic portrait of an organized crime syndicate called the Camorra based in Naples. Director Matteo Garrone’s five entwined narratives cross generations and social strata, from a white-collar toxic-waste dumper down to an impoverished kid from the projects named Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese) who aspires to join a “clan.” For his initiation, a mobster shoots Totò in a cheap-looking bulletproof vest, and afterward, the boy admires his bullet bruise like an adolescent seeing his first chest hair.
Gomorrah uses Roberto Saviano’s best-selling Italian crime exposé as source material. The film proves comparable to the oil corruption drama Syriana in its willingness to pile on realistic detail upon detail without offering conventional movie heroes, or even charismatic antiheroes. Gomorrah’s commitment to naturalism and casting of many nonprofessional actors doesn’t make things easy for audiences expecting gangland thrills. Garrone primarily fixes our attention to various ground-level functionaries such as a mobbed-up tailor who secretly starts working for a Chinese sweatshop, or a low-level money man named Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), whose deadened eyes convey his disillusionment. Rather than follow the money or chain of command, Gomorrah implies that there are no real bosses and that dog-eat-dog is the only rule.
When a vaguely defined gang war breaks out, the audience feels very much in the position of an innocent bystander at a drive-by shooting. Gunplay can erupt from nowhere, but we have precious little sense of who the sides are — as if a meaningful distinction exists between “good” and “bad” murderous criminals. A life of crime may lead to nothing more than being shot in an ambush and buried by a front end-loader on a desolate beach. Maybe with Gomorrah, the message will finally sink in.