Sunday, April 19, 2009

Film Review: Gomorra

Grade: B-

Gomorra is one of those films that comes armed with critics’ praises and festival laurels (Cannes Film Festival 2008), but I felt the film somehow lacked a certain energy required to really propel the (bare-bones) story forward. I don’t mean the film needed an infusion of MTV-style bombast ala City of God; in fact, the subject matter is presented in such an antithetical, deliberately realist manner that the moronic label of poverty-porn shouldn’t surface anywhere near this saga concerning various criminal activity in Naples, Italy. Nor do I believe the various threads of narrative should have taken on the fashionable, often hollow, thrill of eventually intertwining so as to present some larger cosmic statement about the interconnectedness of the universe (1). But the film is all pieces and no whole. This might have been acceptable, but at the end of the film, the filmmakers resort to using some closing end notes. These cards quickly inundate the viewer with pertinent information that nonetheless seems a cheap way of making a statement much, much larger than the previous two plus hours of vignettes had dared suggest. So while I appreciated the craft of the film and the filmmaker’s desire to not allow for stylistic excess to overshadow the tale, I felt a disconnect that never made the film’s world seem any more unique or newsworthy than the dozens of other mob films. Just because the film is based on fact doesn’t make it any more compelling nor should it be looked at with a less critical eye.

Truth be told, I wanted some of Scorsese’s filmic verve and joie de vivre, the kind evident in Goodfellas and Casino. Those two films were also based on fact, but Scorsese understands the adrenaline rush that accompanies such a lifestyle without shirking away from the grotesque undercurrent that eventually sucks most participants under. Gomorra's presentation by director Matteo Garrone is more matter-of-fact even if he does prove to be a gimlet-eyed talent in the distillation of apprehensive fear and terror. He follows several characters as they go about doing their business: an older man making monetary payments to individuals connected to the Camorra syndicate; a young boy enamored by a life of crime who faces a merciless decision; two teenagers reared on Al Pacino’s Scarface who abscond with some of the Camorra’s guns only to find themselves out of their element; and a tailor charged with the creation of designer dresses who foolishly decides to earn some extra money behind the backs of his employers. While nothing in the film is complex, it nonetheless bewildered me at times because Garrone chooses to drop viewers into the middle of story lines. This technique worked well sometimes and frustrated me at other points, but it’s usage provided the viewer with the grim perspective that all human life is indistinguishable pulp in this environment; if one person’s life is extinguished, another life will take its place, and the cyclical, violent nature of the whole enterprise will continue.

The best scene in the film finds the tailor, Pasquale, as he watches Scarlett Johansson (2) on a television while she parades around in a dress he helped create. The schism evident between the reality of the dress’s history and the fantasy of the starlet’s life provides a succinct and stark commentary on globalization’s nefarious grasp. This scene announced in an inferential manner what the end cards bludgeoned viewers with: scope and perspective towards humanity’s crippling desire to have its cake and eat it, too.

1 See Crash, Babel, Magnolia, the aforementioned City of God, and many others if you like this form of serendipitous storytelling. When done well, this form of narrative provides a welcome jolt and the cumulative power feels authentic. When done poorly, see Babel.

2 How the F did she become such a star? Yes, she’s voluptuous and she’s not a terrible actress, but that’s not exactly high praise. I bow my head in prayer for the number of talented unknown actresses who have yet to be discovered because of Hollywood’s recessive gene pool.