“The most concrete emblem of every economic cycle is the dump,” writes Naples native and best-selling Italian muckraker Roberto Saviano somewhere near the conclusion of his extraordinary 2006 “nonfiction novel” Gomorrah, a seethingly cogent and literarily constructed indictment of the Camorra, Italy’s largest organized crime syndicate. Far older and much more widespread than the country’s other Mafia networks, the Cosa Nostra and the ’Ndrangheta, the Naples-based Camorra—or “the system,” as it is often simply referred to—is the machine that drives most of Italy’s (and, increasingly, the world’s) organized crime, and much of the country’s illicit and licit economies. Drugs, high-fashion textiles, weapons, construction, shipping, and waste management “solutions”—all these and more fall under the Camorra’s voracious and remorseless purview, but for Saviano, who has spent years studying and explicating the organization’s relentlessly lethal economic turbine, it is only by pawing through the contaminated landfills and human detritus the system leaves in its wake that one can truly come to grips with the devastation inherent in its design. For the Camorra, Saviano mordantly suggests, the dump is like a garden: a kind of upside-down Eden, profitably sown with poisoned industrial sludge, watered with the sweat and blood of those who work and struggle to survive within it, and fertilized with the bodies of anyone who might foolishly stand in its way.
Saviano’s Gomorrah quickly became a runaway hit in Italy (with more than a million copies sold domestically, and translated into more than thirty-three languages) and made headlines around the world. But for the author, the price of success has been high: since October of 2006, Saviano has been obliged to live under police protection, even as his neojournalistic masterpiece has gone on to become one of the most highly acclaimed and enthusiastically received Italian films in recent times. For their cinematic adaptation, director Matteo Garrone and a small garrison of screenwriters distilled Saviano’s fantastically digressive and often brilliantly nonlinear rhizomatic sprawl into five tersely told narrative threads, touching on every tentacle of the Camorra’s slimy socioeconomic reach: from the moral and material strains suffered by the haute couture master tailor Pasquale, who risks his life for a few fleeting moments of hard-won professional respect, and the automatic-weapon-powered rites of passage undertaken by the puny Ciro and Marco, a pair of doomed Scarface wannabes, to the hapless vulnerability of the sunken-eyed bagman Don Ciro, the corrupting of the androgynous, prepubescent camorrista-in-waiting Totò, and finally, the central antagonism between Italian box-office star Toni Servillo’s toxic waste management specialist, the dapper, despicable Franco, and his young protégé, Roberto, the film’s moral conscience and a stand-in for Saviano. Garrone weaves these stories together in a series of artfully designed and almost inevitably brutal set pieces, cannily encasing them in the sounds of Naples’s propulsively danceable, neomelodic music. The result is a blisteringly modern tale of organized tyranny and disorganized human chaos, in which each of the story’s strands accrues the timelessness and ineluctable gravity of a passion play or parable. And yet this is no biblical Gomorrah: with no God in sight to punish the wicked, Garrone, like Saviano, sees all too well the ways that the wicked of southern Italy’s Campania region have developed instead a system for annihilating themselves, one freshly rotting corpse and chemically contaminated county at a time.
The Camorra has a long history of intimate interconnectedness with the movies. As cinematic subject matter in Italian films with cultural pretensions both high and low, its widescreen swath is broad and varied, cutting in the space of a single year from Giuseppe Tornatore’s well-regarded 1986 debut, the psychological study Il camorrista (with a savage, anguished Ben Gazzara as real-life 1970s Nuova Camorra Organizzata founder and long-imprisoned boss Raffaele Cutolo), to Lina Wertmuller’s less fondly remembered foray into gender warfare Camorra: A Story of Streets, Women, and Crime (with Harvey Keitel as a fictionalized camorrista Casanova). Numerous “guappo” revenge potboilers and hard-boiled Italian action flicks from the 1970s and earlier have taken the Campania underworld as their backdrop; there was even a silent Italian short called La camorra napoletana produced as far back as 1906. (The Camorra itself dates back further still, to at least the 1700s, well over a hundred years before the first ancestors of the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, cinematic or otherwise, began to appear.)
And like the Mafia in Manhattan and the yakuza in Japan, so too does the Camorra maintain a kind of symbiotic semiotic steady state with its local and international cinematic counterparts. After all, gangsters the world over have been consulting the cinema for tips on sartorial style, bad-boy attitude, and other tough-guy affectations since D. W. Griffith worked at Biograph, and Saviano carefully details the extent to which various factions within the Camorra have long modeled their manners and mansions on the shadow selves they adore on-screen. From the kingpin who commissioned a villa à la that of Scarface’s Tony Montana (Saviano visited the ruins of the place, known by locals simply as Hollywood, after the owner’s downfall, and celebrated the occasion by pissing into the raised bathtub in the center of the living room) to the godmothers whose cadres of bodyguards sport facsimiles of Uma Thurman’s fluorescent yellow racing togs from Kill Bill, the mob seems married to the movies. And yet for all of the Camorra’s real-life infatuations with the silver screen—never mind all the critical ink that’s been spilled over Gomorrah as a kind of cinematically deglamorized anti-Godfather—Garrone’s pithy and deeply cinephilic adaptation of Saviano’s exposé nevertheless succeeds in twisting and blurring the line between “the system” and the cinema more sublimely and insuperably still.
Though Garrone trained and worked for a decade as a painter before turning to filmmaking (and has, in interviews, allowed that the paintings of Francis Bacon, so “animalistic and carnal,” may have had a decisive impact on the look of Gomorrah), his cinema has long displayed a sensitivity to its film-historical antecedents—the homoneurotic and patently Hitchcockian Psycho-drama of 2002’s The Embalmer (about a diminutive, Camorra-affiliated taxidermist with designs on stuffing the hunky assistant he’s just hired), the Pasolinian profusion of amorous, alchemical, and anorectic excesses in 2004’s First Love—that clearly reveals a cineaste at heart. That Garrone would bring a sophisticated range of cinematic references to Gomorrah was a given—reinventing, for example, Alex Rocco’s barbershop demise in The Godfather in a palette of irradiated blues for the tanning parlor massacre with which Gomorrah begins, and admitting to a fondness for the visual similarities between the grotty (and since razed) housing project cum open-air drug bazaar in Scampia where much of his film is set and the dystopian pyramidal palaces and warrenlike street-level neon-ariums into which Blade Runner progressively descends. “I thought it could be science fiction,” Garrone says of first reading Saviano’s book, which in parts paints southern Italy as a mountain of refuse taller than Everest, festering and oozing like some toxic Vesuvius on the far side of a desiccated moon. Science fiction or cosmic comedy? Perhaps both, as nothing in the film is as deliriously deadpan in its Alphaville-ian absurdity as the moment when Franco and Roberto emerge from a cordoned-off cargo container dressed in space-suit-like hazmat gear, after inspecting and okaying the boxcar’s ominous contents: “Humanitarian Aid.”
But while Gomorrah might seem in many respects worlds, if not future worlds, away from the rubble-strewn postwar verisimilitudes of Italian neorealism, Garrone begged to differ when he told Cinéaste in a 2008 interview that in fact his “main point of reference for Gomorrah was not a Mafia movie but a war movie—Rossellini’s Paisan.” From Rossellini’s masterpiece Garrone readily admits to borrowing both Gomorrah’s episodic structure and—in collaboration with his longtime cinematographer, Marco Onorato (whose airlessly tight close-ups and endless tracking-shot pursuits at times owe an equal debt to the brothers Dardennes’ breathlessly mobile and forward-rushing realism)—the mandate to “follow [his] characters without judging them.” Indeed, the more one looks for mementos of Italianate cinephilia in Gomorrah, the more one is rewarded: here, a statue of a saint being lowered by winch during what appears to be an apartment dweller’s eviction, as if to signal the arrival of a post-Fellini mala vita; there, an endless stretch of beach, soon to be bloodstained and then bulldozed into a burial ground, as if Antonioni’s Red Desert had once again been bleached a lifeless white by an all-seeing, never-caring sun. As for its delicate balance of genre film viscerality and systemic, docu-realist social analysis, Gomorrah’s indebtedness to Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano is unmistakable as well. Indeed, Rosi himself paid a visit to Garrone’s set during shooting, and praised the “anthropological interest” of the younger director’s auteurist insistence on faces framed as tightly, and often as impenetrably, as the painted Grecian statuary in Godard’s Cinecittà-centric Contempt.
Naples has always been psychogeographically synonymous with systems of underground caves and other subterranean structures: ancient and modern tunnels, aqueducts, cisterns, catacombs, and quarries honeycomb beneath the city and environs, as if echoing the worm-eaten social and economic apple the Camorra has left above. Garrone cunningly, claustrophobically visualizes and fuses both of these systems, staging many of Gomorrah’s set pieces within the blackened mouths of infernal pits (as during the trial by Kevlar undergone by the film’s pint-size, pixieish Totò, whose admission into the mob is marked by a bullet to the vest at near point-blank range); along the catwalklike terraces strung between apartment-block towers like cobwebs twitching with the snared and the already dead (drug dealers and junkies squabbling on one landing while a wedding march proceeds unmolested a level below); or in the bowels of bottomless parking structures, where the bagman Don Ciro can often be found scurrying away from the echoes of squealing rubber, always one rabbit-scared jump ahead of the end of the line.
All of Gomorrah’s visual emphasis on caves and tunnels and tombs within tombs (from the hidden stash of weapons looted by the adolescent Ciro and Marco to the coffinlike trunk space in which seamster Pasquale rides nightly to his moonlighting gig at a Chinese garment factory) notwithstanding, several of the film’s most devastating events transpire in broad daylight, along wide-open expanses of pasture-bordered roadside or at the edges of an endless dunescape. It’s in the latter that we recurrently encounter Marco and Ciro, first indelibly emptying automatic weapons into a canal cut through a spit of desolate marshland while wearing nothing but skimpy designer briefs and furiously bellowing war faces, and later haplessly maneuvering into position among bunkers abutting beachfront where the system waits to exact its toll. Along the former, we watch as Roberto first receives, and then discards, a carton of landfill-poisoned peaches, whose sweetly rotting aroma evokes a host of prior cinematic gardens of evil (Chinatown’s parched and corrupted apple orchards, Marlon Brando’s smiling orange-peel death rattle in The Godfather) and signals Roberto’s coming to consciousness and sudden rejection of the Camorra’s business-as-usual attitude toward the despoliation of the southern Italian soil and soul.
For Garrone, those limitless vistas are both portholes to the alienated, Antonioni-ized landscapes of the cinematic past and potent, if bitterly ironic, reimaginings of Campania’s ancient history of picturesque pastoral and sweeping seaside views: a gallery of vast canvases, each to be filled with scrutinizing close-ups of dead and dying men’s heads, or left neat and nearly emptied, as if the scenery itself had already swallowed humanity whole. For the Camorra, those same wide-open spaces serve a somewhat different, far more diffident master: the brutal efficiencies of the system itself—a system that sees empty spaces as nothing more than emblematic zones of potential commerce, untapped spheres of future industry. Life under the Camorra is science fiction—and space, its final frontier: quarried holes left gaping in the sides of mountains perfect, at the right price, for refilling with “terraces” of manufacturing sludge and urban/industrial waste, or the bodies of the next generation of bullet-riddled young boys.
Chuck Stephens is a contributing editor to Film Comment and Filmmaker magazines. He lives and teaches in Nashville.