In Larry Smith’s Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure, screenwriter Nora Ephron offers the following pearl of wisdom: “Secret to life: marry an Italian.” Coming from the writer of Sleepless in Seattle (but also, to be fair, Silkwood and When Harry Met Sally), it may or may not be reliable advice.
Anyway, there aren’t enough to go around. But if you were looking to spend the rest of your life with only one national cinema, something with enough kinks and hidden facets to keep things interesting throughout the long dark night of the monogamous cinematic relationship, you could do worse than to pick Italy. Get ready for some close talking. Expect a lot of spirited shouting over the littlest things. Then again, you could also expect a certain degree of conflict avoidance over the knottier issues, for example World War II: Italy has yet to produce a movie about the conflict that neither gloops it in treacle (Life Is Beautiful) nor veils it with perverse eroticism (The Night Porter, plus a whole Nazi sex-crime exploitation genre that flourished in the ’70s).
Other pet peeves might start to fester—for example, a sentimental national preference for annoyingly cute child actors pushed to the fore (Life Is Beautiful, Cinema Paradiso), and Roberto Benigni generally. Of course, you’d have Fellini, Antonioni, De Sica, Visconti and Rossellini. Think of the barbecues.
Lest you peg your spouse as a thoroughly hopeless romantic, though, you would also have to take notice of movies like Gomorra, Matteo Garrone’s grim and gritty view of gangster life in Naples, home not only to tricolor ice cream but also the Camorra crime syndicate. To the tourist ear, the word camorra might sound like just another rustic sausage or scenic seaside village, but to Italians it bespeaks extortion and murder and it’s a fact of life for altogether too many. The syndicate, as we learn in the obligatory set of informative titles at the end of Gomorra, is responsible for more killings and more illegal dumping of hazardous substances than any other criminal organization in Europe. So clearly this marriage isn’t going to be all wine tours and excellent cooking.
Based on Romanza Criminale (Crime Novel), author Roberto Saviano’s nonfiction foray into the world of the Camorra, Garrone’s movie actually comprises five stories, five narrative strands, each unrelated to the others. It might help to know this going into the movie—no need to divert any attention looking for any Altmanesque linkage. At the same time, all the characters clearly belong to the same narrative, and beyond that to the same gritty, smoky world that Gomorra makes all too real, too palpable. In a sense, Gomorra upholds the national cinema’s peripatetic tradition of realism, at one time called Italian neorealism, a rough-and-ready postwar school established more out of necessity than virtue by pioneers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica. It ain’t Cinema Paradiso, that’s for sure.
With the occasional outing to Venice, Gomorra takes place primarily in shabby housing projects around Naples. Most of the dialogue, in fact, is not in Italian per se but the Neapolitan dialect, so thick that elsewhere in Italy the movie is shown to Italian audiences with subtitles. Some viewers might be reminded of City of God, although Gomorra’s Naples has none of the vibrant energy of City’s Rio, with its adjacent surfing beaches and bucket-shaking ghetto dance parties, to say nothing of the sweeping New World gangster romanticism of Goodfellas or The Godfather. It’s closer to the Mexico City of Bunuel’s Los Olvidados or the Medellin of Our Lady of the Assassins and Rodrigo D: No Futuro: grim places without much going on apart from petty crime and spontaneous brutality. Nearer to home, Gomorra’s Naples resembles in some ways the Rome of Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, a defining work of Neorealism and, like Gomorra, a movie about Italians on the edge, starring non-actors looking credibly acquainted with the edge themselves.
One of Gomorra’s characters is a kid who delivers groceries to a mobbed-up Camorra wife and dreams about joining the System (Camorra associates reportedly never use the word camorra). Then there’s a pair of older teenage thugs operating on their own; their activities could get them either killed or recruited by one of the dominant rival factions. Pasquale, a tailor who pirates designer dresses and manufactures them in Camorra-controlled sweatshops, is also on the verge of a risky decision, weighing the life-changing consequences of selling out to the Chinese competition. All characters are caught in a war between the rival factions. There’s no straightforward story, no predictable trajectory, nothing to root for or any reason to believe things will work out well in the end for anybody.
And it’s deeply engrossing. Not horrifically violent, neither gentle nor appealing in any way, but seedy and sordid and something you just have to see.