By Anthony Buchanan
Labeling films can be dangerous, and sticking director Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah with the "mafia" title, which everyone seems to want to do, is misleading. Gomorrah is not a "gangster movie." Yes, the story follows the lives of several people through a neglected and ruined quarter of Naples associated with the mob, but the gangsters themselves are not the focus.
The importance of the film lies in the tedious and desperate lives of people in the area, mostly kids. The action mixes the mob bosses, who seem to know what they're doing, with aimless adolescents, who have nothing better to do than be macho or try to penetrate the crime world. Gomorrah exists largely on the outside of that world; forget Goodfellas and all the others to which this film is compared. Gomorrah is not a stylish, fashionable portrait of the inner world of suave and malicious mobsters who eat, drink, laugh and kill seamlessly. Replace the expensive suits with tattoos and muscle shirts, rock classics with silence and the iconic Brando/DeNiro cliché with punks, and you've got it.
Several stories are sporadically established, with the nosy camera spying on people at very close range. We meet a young boy who is interested in working for the mob but is discreet about his intentions. Then there are the mobsters who plan to build a quarry in which to dump toxic waste. We also discover two macho nihilists that spew Scarface lines and stolen bullets throughout the film. Unsure if they want to join the mob or form their own, they shout over and over, "The world is ours," and go off on such childish rants and misadventures that their fates seem deserved. The boredom of the characters seeps through the screen; the aching tedium of their lives permeates the air and gives the film its substance.
Despite its strong and compelling stories, Gomorrah possesses a fair amount of flaws, including psychic distance and a free-wheeling narrative that pushes the viewer too far away from the action. The film does not focus on one theme in particular, and the lack of direction in many of the scenes often dissolves into slow and careless rambling. We are also prevented from getting as close to certain characters and events as to others. For example, although we see a good deal of the mob's day-to-day workings, the material is handled too passively by the filmmakers and too often comes off as the stuff that should have ended up on the cutting room floor.
As a result, we are left in the dark on way too many issues and meanings throughout the film. Dense tedium clouds the true strengths of the characters—and they are excellent and colorful characters. With a bit more psychological realism and 30 minutes trimmed off the film, these guys and their world would have made a much stronger impact.