Friday, August 01, 2008

Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008)

Matteo Garrone’s sprawling, ambitious Gomorrah was one of the few genuine sensations of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Based on Roberto Saviano’s book-length expose on the toll that the systemic corruption of Italy’s crime families has taken on its nation, the film is both timely and self-consciously important. Alternating between five narrative threads, which examine the crime syndicates at all levels, the film creates a rich, disturbing tapestry of offenses and a persuasive argument that Italy is nearing a point of no return. Even if there are objections to its mode of storytelling or its limited dramatic impact, there’s no denying its real world significance.

Although Garrone uses light and shadow too effectively and expressively to earn the descriptor “documentary-like”, there is a certain Neorealist element to Gomorrah. The film’s landscapes, which include hollowed out apartment complexes, massive toxic waste dumping grounds, and seedy back rooms, paint a jaundiced portrait of modern-day Italy. It’s hard to remember the last time the country looked so filthy on screen. Visually, the film would suggest something is terrible in the country, even if it failed to put a single character on screen. The people that it does choose to follow only make the situation seem more desperate still. Gomorrah’s cast of characters, each of them well-played by a member of the ensemble, represent the sort of people you usually only see in the background of gangster movies. The clear standout is Salvatore Cantalupo, playing a high-fashion tailor who becomes a consultant for Chinese manufacturers. He gives a genuinely moving, world-weary performance that provides the closest thing this movie has to a heart.

Gomorrah’s biggest problem is that it’s considerably less distinctive than Garrone’s last two films. Partially because it’s taking on a large societal problem, and partly because it’s aiming for respectability, it lacks the creepy perversity that has defined Garrone to date. Also problematic is the film’s inability to move beyond muckraking. It spends so much energy demonstrating the depth of the corruption surrounding the Italian mob, but it’s difficult to know why anyone would enter the film with a different expectation of the mob’s behavior. The sheer pervasiveness of corruption is eye-opening, and it justifies the narrative structure somewhat, but it seems a slight point to be making over the course of two and a half hours. Finally, that run time also takes its toll on Gomorrah. Urgency builds in individual scenes, and then dissipates as the film switches between its disparate plot threads. The editing isn’t bad, but it certainly doesn’t enhance the stories much by tying them together. Gomorrah surely seems more relevant in its home country, but to foreign eyes, it ultimately doesn’t amount to much. Most of its novelty seems to lie in its refusal to glamorize its subjects.

Rating: 51/100

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