Directors Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola have repeatedly emphasized their abhorrence of gangsterism. And they’ve had to since, no matter what price their characters end up paying, movies like Scorsese’s Goodfellas and Casino, and Coppola’s Godfather trilogy inadvertently glamorize gangster life. Which is not to diminish their greatness or claim they’re irresponsible by any means, but there’s an outlaw allure to the life that cannot be denied; it’s a little like François Truffaut’s famous statement that you can’t make a war movie without making war look like fun. Say this for Matteo Garrone’s powerful Gomorrah: It succeeds in siphoning every ounce of glamour out of gangster life. Over the course of this sprawling mosaic about the world’s most fearsome Mafia organization, the Neapolitan Camorra, Garrone makes the business look like a beast of many tentacles, spreading misery and death to everyone it touches.
Based on a bestselling exposé by Roberto Saviano, a crusading young journalist who’s currently under protective detail after death threats from the mob, Gomorrah lacks a magnetic central figure like a Tony Soprano or a Michael Corleone. Instead, Garrone takes an approach similar to The Wire in which he gives roughly equal time to a broad cast of characters, whether they’re thugs circulating the various gangs within the Camorra or ordinary citizens and business forced to remain complicit under threat of violence. Though it takes time to get a handle on who’s who and what’s what, a few storylines emerge, including a beaten-down garment professional who tries to throw in with Chinese immigrants, a government official who’s lost his will to fight the system, and a freelancing pair of young crooks who get in way over their heads.
The first and most striking impressions in Gomorrah are the locations: Bombed-out apartment slums, infested by roving bands of criminals and connected through a vast network of bridges and secret tunnels. Prosperity isn’t spread around; whatever financial gains a law-abiding citizen might make are skimmed away in protection money and nothing goes back into the community. Gomorrah takes place in a world where decency can’t take root and we can only watch in horror as crime overwhelms society’s most vulnerable— women, children, law-abiding citizens, and the conscientious few who want to get out of the game.