New review: ‘Gomorrah’

Gomorrah (dir: Matteo Garrone)

I first saw Matteo Garrone’s ambitious and somewhat grueling screen adaptation of Robert Saviano’s non-fiction study of the insidious infiltration of organized crime in all facets of life in Naples and Caserta, at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. It was ambitious, it was sprawling, it was damnably hard to follow. Seeing it in the middle of film festival while recovering from a flu that knocked me flat for a day cerainly didn’t help my comprehension, I confess, but it’s also the nature of the beast. The film follows five separate stories, completely unconnected but for the far reach of the Neapolitan Camorra (the Mafia organization that runs Naples), and it jumps back and forth between them at seemingly random points. The film feels like it’s sprawling all over the place. That may be the point, but it makes it hard work to piece it together. I watched again in preparation for my review in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and was much more involved. With the overview in place, the stories came together for me much easier and the film felt more organic. That left me with a real quandary that I was not completely able to confront in my review: how do you rate a film that is compelling on a second viewing but I found terribly hard to connect with the first time through?

Say hello to my little friends
Say hello to my little friends

Director Garrone made documentaries before moving on to features and he gives Gomorrah a strong sense of place. It just happens to be a place of dire poverty and desolation, shot with a grim drabness. And the five stories he tells (framed by a mob hit that signals the internal struggle for dominance within the Camorra) are surely chosen to show the various connections between organized crime and the region’s culture, but they don’t feel like lessons. They have their own integrity. Especially the story of the two teenage boys we first see running around an abandoned building site with guns in their hands, playing at being Tony Montana, and later see celebrating their successful (and ill-advised) rip-off of a cache of mafia guns, by running around a deserted beach in their underwear while shooting off automatic weapons. That’s as much glamour as you can expect from the this portrait of the mob: emotionally immature boys playing at gangster, oblivious of the reality behind their fantasy that they can shoot their way to the top of the region’s criminal food chain.

It’s all about waste and destruction, and not just the toxic waste — illegally dumped in landfills — that is poisoning the farmland and the aquifers in the region. The Camorra grinds up the lives it touches, including those who take the gangsters as their role models for success. Abandoned and gutted buildings are everywhere, and the populace lives in a state of squalor.

The only affluence in sight is a penthouse balcony. Kids play, oblivious to the grim poverty below them or the men with guns who keep guard on the nearby rooftops like an occupying army.

No wonder kids aspire to become gangsters: It’s their idea of joining the workforce. The violence outside their windows is simply the occupational hazards of job and the way of their world.

Read my P-I review here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website ( I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View ( I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly,, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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