3 1/2 out of 4 stars
For as long as there have been movies, filmmakers and audiences have been in love with mob flicks. Organized crime provides seemingly endless sources of storytelling fodder, and up until "Gomorrah" they have all had one thing in common: romanticism.
No matter how brutal, bloody, twisted or depraved the characters in these films behave, we're drawn in and often times enamored with them. Not here.
"Gomorrah" offers no glitz, glamour or high-end lifestyles. It's an unrepentant existence of desperate hand-to-mouth and a battle for crumbs and scraps. There is no emotion or fervor, only a dispassionate survival of the fittest in the most brutal asphalt jungle imaginable.
The book on which the movie is based proved to be so authentic and revealing that members of the Camorra crime family portrayed in the film put a bounty on the head of author Roberto Saviano, who is still under 24-hour police protection.
Co-written by Saviano and director Matteo Garrone, the screenplay interweaves five stories that play out a lot like "Syriana" and "Traffic." Shot on location in the Italian cities of Naples and Caserta, Garrone employed many non-actors, filmed with hand-held cameras and more often than not, we get the feeling we're watching a documentary. The sets are purposefully ugly, the sound isn't perfect and it appears there was little budget for wardrobe or fancy lighting. It is as stark and stripped down as can be.
Absent are also the typical mob movie money making ventures. There's no prostitution, black-market stolen goods, gambling or murder-for-hire. There are no family feasts, long-suffering wives or doting mothers; no edgy pop soundtrack or a swelling operatic score. Hits aren't filmed in close-up with spattering blood and no one makes any 11th hour, soul-searching confessions.
Three of the five principals are involved largely mundane activities. There's the illegal dumping of toxic waste, the unauthorized reproduction of designer label clothes and a reluctant bag man who doles out dirty money to the families of jailed criminals. Is it boring? Maybe. Is it true to life? You be the judge.
One subplot involves a child who accidentally becomes an informant and grows increasingly intoxicated by the slight boost to his wallet and the knowing but fearful respect he gets from his friends. He's a bit like the juvenile Henry Hill character in "GoodFellas."
Echoing an early episode of "The Sopranos" are a pair of blustery morons with ill-placed bravado who quote lines from "Scarface" and mistakenly believe they've hit the mother lode after discovering a cache of stolen weapons. Oh, the lessons they'll learn.
Fans of traditional mob movies might be turned off by the lack of stylized drama they're used to, but need to see the film if only for the jolt of realistic counterbalance. Those who are generally turned off by the glorified violence contained in traditional crime movies will probably appreciate "Gomorrah" the most. There is violence but it's infrequent and fleeting and every second of it serves the story - this brilliant, unsexy, dead-end, skid-mark tragedy of a story.
Presented in Italian with English subtitles. (IFC)