PRINT February 2009


Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah

Matteo Garrone, Gomorrah, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 137 minutes. Gaetano (Gaetano Altamura) and Simone (Simone Sacchettino).

WHEN HIS FATHER DIED, a friend of mine inherited a hotel in the town of Torre Annunziata, the site of a beautiful ancient Roman villa about fifteen miles southeast of Naples, and expected to take over the family business. But within a week he found himself in the hotel office with a gun pointed at his head by gangsters from the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia, who were making sure he understood how to run the business. My friend sold the hotel and moved to New York.

That story, one of thousands that could be told, illustrates the disastrous condition of much of southern Italy, where there is virtually no place for smart, energetic people who refuse to live under the yoke of organized crime. More than a third of one of Europe’s richest countries is frozen in a state of permanent underdevelopment; the area’s principal talents leave or steer clear of any economic activity likely to be of interest to the Mob, while virtually no honest business invests in the area. Eight of Italy’s twenty regions—the whole of southern Italy, including Sicily and Sardinia—account for only 1 percent of the country’s foreign investment.

In the public imagination, the Camorra has played second fiddle to Sicily’s Cosa Nostra, the subject of countless investigative reports, histories, novels, and films. But, sadly, the focus of attention on Sicily has profited the Camorra, allowing it to grow equally powerful. In fact, the Camorra has been responsible for some four thousand murders in the last thirty years, more than any other crime group. In this time of increasing domination, Naples and its hinterland—once an area of Greek settlement and ancient Roman villas, a garden spot where Roman emperors and nobility spent their holidays—has become a scarred and poisoned landscape, the site of illegal toxic waste dumps, with skyrocketing cancer rates and contaminated fruits and vegetables. The scandal of the Camorra became national and international news in 2007 when mountains of garbage piled up on the streets in and around Naples as a consequence of the local government’s incompetence and its collusion with organized crime. Entire towns had to close down schools when toxicity levels from illegal incinerators threatened the health of schoolchildren. The sale of buffalo mozzarella—the signature delicacy of the area—was briefly halted in March 2008 (and its importation to France, Japan, and South Korea temporarily banned), when some cheese was found to be contaminated with dioxin.

Trailer for the US release of Gomorrah (2008).

One of the major factors in finally bringing sustained scrutiny to the Camorra was, of all things, a book—by twenty-six-year-old first-time author Roberto Saviano. Gomorrah was published by Mondadori as a novel in 2006, but much of it is based on trial material from real cases and the author’s own experience growing up in Casal di Principe, a town just north of Naples and a Camorra stronghold. Although Saviano has been accused by other reporters in Italy of having fictionalized parts of his narrative, he insists it is a true-crime novel à la Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; and it was later published as nonfiction in the United States. Mondadori originally printed seven thousand copies; it has now sold more than one million in Italy alone. An unusual blend of hard-boiled investigative journalism, autobiography, and gangster story, Gomorrah has appeared on best-seller lists throughout Europe and North America as well. The book’s success—and the spotlight it shone on the Camorra—has earned Saviano not only handsome royalties but death threats, so that he now lives under round-the-clock police protection in Rome and has announced that he may leave Italy entirely.

Considering the extraordinary extent to which the book captured the public imagination, it was perhaps inevitable that Gomorrah would be turned quickly into a film, particularly given the enduring appeal of the crime-film genre. Despite the auspicious subject matter and international popularity of Saviano’s text, it is a truism that movies rapidly transposed from topical books generally don’t turn out well, at best approximating a CliffsNotes version of the original work. But Matteo Garrone’s film Gomorrah—which won the Grand Prix at Cannes last year and was Italy’s submission to this year’s Oscar competition for best foreign-language film—is an impressive exception, an adaptation that manages to be a compelling work in its own right and indeed one of the best crime movies Italy has produced in decades. It presents a gritty, brutally unsentimental vision of life within a Camorra-dominated community, managing uncannily to capture the nightmarish sense of claustrophobia of this closed universe whose inhabitants, virtually unaware of anything outside of it, are thus forced to accept the world of the Camorra on its terms. Gomorrah is much closer to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas than to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather series in terms of providing an unglamorous, true-to-life view of the thugs who populate the precincts of organized crime. Using a mixture of professional actors and kids from the Naples area (not to mention a number of actual Camorristi, at least three of whom were subsequently imprisoned), Gomorrah exudes a strong sense of realism without feeling like a documentary.

The challenges of turning Saviano’s text into film seemed particularly great. While grippingly recounting many a vivid scene, the book is an impressionistic pastiche of disparate chapters that jump around in place and time, from theme to theme and character to character, without any narrative unity. The film succeeds because it manages to honor the spirit of the book while taking considerable liberties with the material.

Matteo Garrone, Gomorrah, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 137 minutes. Maria (Maria Nazionale) and Boxer (Salvatore Ruocco).

Gomorrah’s team of screenwriters (which included Saviano himself) cleverly plucked out five strands from the book and in most cases extended the stories forward, giving the movie a kind of narrative drive that its source often lacks. The writers chose as their chief location Le Vele (The Sails), a massive housing project in Scampìa, a town just north of Naples, which gives the movie unity and a clear physical identity, whereas the book bounces around various locations, which can be confusing if you don’t know the area. The screenplay moves gracefully, and with considerable skill, between the different stories it has partly created and shrewdly situated within the context of a major war (dispatched in one chapter of Saviano’s book) between opposing factions of a local Camorra clan, which lends further unity, urgency, and momentum to the film. Even though they are not directly connected, these episodes seem to be part of the same story, and by the time the end credits roll, the narrative has accrued import far greater than the sum of its parts.

In one of the stories, we follow Don Ciro, a bland, quiet man who might have been a bank clerk in a kinder world but who distributes “pension” funds in Le Vele to the families of Camorristi. His weekly rounds become dangerously complicated by a vicious dispute tearing apart the clan for which he has long toiled. When Don Ciro approaches the leader of one of the factions to say that “war isn’t for me,” the boss explains that no one can remain neutral and that if he wants to stay alive he must set up certain of his clients for a hit. In another story, we follow Totò, a boy from the projects who takes up selling drugs as naturally and unself-consciously as another kid might take up basketball. He and his cohorts earn their spurs by donning bulletproof vests and taking close-range pistol shots that knock them off their feet and leave bruises on their hairless teenage chests. The internecine warfare forces Totò, like Don Ciro, to choose, and he is called on to betray the mother of a Camorrista on the “wrong” side. Another strand picks up the story of two hapless young losers who aspire to be gangsters and like to imitate Al Pacino’s performance in Scarface. After stealing a stash of guns from the Camorra and finding their manhood in shooting off automatic weapons on the seashore, they meet a predictable end. Yet another story line involves the tailor Pasquale, who, having been exploited most of his career sewing in and helping to run Camorra-owned sweatshops that manufacture high-end clothes for Italy’s top designers, decides to accept a high-paying offer to teach the workers in a Chinese sweatshop that has been set up in competition to the Camorristi’s. The last thread, and the only one to connect the world of the Camorra to the wider world, follows a well-dressed businessman who operates a waste disposal business, taking toxic waste from northern Italy and dumping it, illegally, in the countryside outside of Naples. We see him buying rights to dump the waste on the land of poor peasants who continue trying to grow fruit and vegetables in soil that has already been poisoned. Here, finally, is a glimpse of the “legitimate” world that, to a disconcerting degree, needs, and for that reason allows, the world of Gomorrah to exist.

The film doesn’t have a conventional beginning, middle, and end and doesn’t try to tie its five narrative strands together. Instead, as we have seen, Garrone uses the intensified clan war within the Camorra to unify the action and elicit the feeling of a hermetic system from which there is no escape. The Camorra, in different ways, forces each protagonist to accept its terms or else. The one exception is a young Neapolitan named Roberto, an assistant to the businessman mentioned above. After throwing out a box full of toxic peaches given him by an old peasant woman still trying to farm on land despoiled by his boss’s illegal dumping, Roberto decides to quit there and then by the side of the highway, refusing to get back into the businessman’s car. The lonely figure of the young man making his way by foot down a deserted country road is the single spiral of hope in an otherwise hopeless world. But, in all likelihood, like my friend from Torre Annunziata and Saviano himself, Roberto is heading somewhere beyond his native region.

Gomorrah opens in New York and Los Angeles on February 13.

Alexander Stille is the author of Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic (Pantheon, 1995), among other titles.