Why do I do this? Only 24 hours after watching the bleak Winter’s Bone, I decided to dig out Gomorrah, recorded a few weeks ago when broadcast on BBC4. Matteo Garrone’s film, which won the grand prize at Cannes 2008, weaves together the disparate stories of some of those caught in the web of the Camorra, the crime syndicate that is the Naples equivalent of the Mafia. It is a long way from the romanticism of The Godfather or the comfortable domesticity of The Sopranos. It is irredeemably bleak: from the opening scene of a mob killing to its closing scene in which two central characters are killed and their bodies disposed of like the waste whose disposal the Camorra controls, there is no hope.
Gomorrah is based on a best-selling expose of the Camorra by Roberto Saviano, who went undercover, used informants, and even worked as a waiter at their weddings. His book named names and explained exactly how the Camorra operates. He now he lives under 24-hour armed guard.
Gomorrah follows five disconnected stories; there’s the innocent-looking boy, Toto, who wants to be a gang foot-soldier; Don Ciro, a bagman who scuttles along the walkways of the nightmarish housing projects doling out cash to families of faithful Camorra members; Pasquale, an expert tailor on a couture-house shopfloor, who dares to moonlight giving lessons the workers of a rival Chinese gang master; and two doomed young delinquents who fancy themselves as gun-toting outlaws.
Most significantly, the fifth story shows the Camorra’s respectable face, represented by Franco, whose business is the disposal of toxic waste as landfill. The Camorra is larger than the Mafia: its annual revenues are said to be as much as $250 billion, and the closing titles suggest that the organisation has invested in the rebuilding of the World Trade Centre.
Roberto Saviano’s book revealed the sheer scale of the Camorra’s activities, not just areas like drugs, people trafficking and gun running, but also in businesses that superficially seem legitimate: fashion, construction, waste disposal. In the film, there are many scenes in which large amounts of money are counted and change hands. In his book, Roberto Saviano wrote:
The Casalesi have distributed their good throughout the region. Just the real estate assets seized by the Naples DDA in the last few years amount to 750 million euros. The lists are frightening. In the Spartacus trial alone, 199 buildings, 52 pieces of property, 14 companies, 12 automobiles, and 3 boats were confiscated. Over the years, according to a 1996 trial, Schiavone and his trusted men have seen the seizure of assets worth 230 million euros: companies, villas, lands, buildings, and powerful automobiles, including the Jaguar in which Sandokan was found at the time of his first arrest. Confiscations that would have destroyed any company, losses that would have ruined any businessman, economic blows that would have capsized any firm. Anyone but the Casalesi cartel. Every time I read about the seizure of property, every time I see the lists of assets the DDA has confiscated from the bosses, I feel depressed and exhausted; everywhere I turn, everything seems to be theirs. Everything. Land, buffalos, farms, quarries, garages, dairies, hotels, and restaurants. A sort of Camorra omnipotence. I can’t see anything that doesn’t belong to them.
The most striking element of the film for me was the combination of cinematography with eye-boggling locations. Matteo Garrone, the director, filmed in a prison-like housing project near Naples and several other bleak, ruined, urban and semi-rural locations. The housing project is a fearful place, with many apartments blasted or burned out, where residents barricade themselves inside their apartments behind bolts and bars. The camera creeps nervously along the project walkways amidst constant, echoing noise as drugs are dealt to shouting crowds and the place resonates with cries from lookouts. For me, Garrone’s vision of these landscapes is redolent of the spiritual and physical desolation Antonioni captured in one of my favourite Italian films, Red Desert (1964):
Garrone’s film follows Saviano’s book in presenting the Camorra gangsters as essentially capitalists, and its focus lies on business processes rather than set-piece gangland battles or executions. This cool, dispassionate approach has led some reviewers to compare it with films by Francesco Rosi like Lucky Luciano and Illustrious Corpses.
The scenes set in the massive disused quarry where toxic waste is being buried are shot from a high angle, emphasising the monumentality of the landscape, in which trucks and men labour like ants. I knew this reminded me of something, and then it came to me – John Martin’s 19th century apocalyptic visions of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:
In Christianity and in Islam, Sodom and Gomorrah became synonymous with impenitent sin, and their destruction with the manifestation of God’s wrath. Whether Garrone anticipates the sins of the Camorra bringing forth their own destruction, I don’t know. From his film and other evidence, it appears there is no wrath powerful enough to dislodge them.
Though there are a couple of characters in Gomorrah who make principled decisions to extricate themselves from the depravity that has literally poisoned the country, we arrive at that closing scene in which the two characters who fancied themselves as gunmen are killed and their bodies disposed of in a front-loader, toxic waste.