By Ron Holloway | July 11, 2008
The most talked about film at Cannes, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah (Gomorra) (Italy, 2008) is based on the non-fiction bestseller with the same title written by Roberto Saviano about the inner workings of the Camorra mafia in Naples. Indeed, since the book’s publication, author-researcher Roberto Saviano has been living under police guard.
According to one unofficial report, the worldwide earnings of the Camorra is estimated at well over $200 billion annually, with the income reaching from drugs and extortion to waste disposal and the haute culture fashion market. Further, with Roberto Saviano contributing his expertise and insights as one of six writers contributing to the screenplay, Gomorra can lay claim to being the most authentic mafia film made. And the since the book has sold over one million copies in Italy alone, plus in translation in some 50 countries, the Italian release of the film (just two days before the Cannes opened) was expected to set box-office records despite its 136-minute running length. And so it was. In addition, an award at Cannes – although the film was not considered ripe enough for a Palme d’Or by the press corps – would certainly add to the aura of Gomorra. It received the runnerup Grand Jury Prize.
A talented director with a portfolio of shorts, documentaries, and features, Matteo Garrone prefers to spend his free time painting. Born in 1968 in Rome, he graduated from an Art Lyceum in 1986 and worked as an assistant cameraman while devoting free time to painting. When his first short film, Silhouette (1996), was awarded, he switched to filmmaking and founded his own production company, Archimede. In 1997, Garrone made two films back-to-back. His experimental debut feature, Terra di mezzo (Middle Ground), was awarded the Special Jury Prize at Turin, and his documentary, Bienvenido Espirito Santo (Welcome Holy Spirit), about Pentecostal traditions, was shot in New York City. More international recognition came in 1998, when Matteo Garrone codirected the short film Un caso di forza maggiore (A Case of Brute Force) and shot the documentary Oreste Pipolo, fotografo di matrimoni (Oreste Pipolo, Marriage Photographer) in Naples. To these, he added his second feature film, Ospiti (Guests) (1998), awarded at Venice and Valencia. His third feature film, Estate Romana (Roman Summer) (2000), was also invited to Venice.
The breakthrough at Cannes came when his L’Imbalsamatore (The Embalmer) (2002) was programmed in the Directors Fortnight. Later awarded a David di Donatello for Best Screenplay, The Embalmer sketches a tale of tormented and denied love in the lives of three people who meet by chance. Peppino, an embalmer, is too short. Valerio, a waiter, is too tall. And Deborah, a girl whose mouth has been surgically repaired, continually changes jobs. What brings them together are their related dreams, their secret desires, and the feeling that fate has denied them the fulfillment of a normal life. Unable to communicate with others, they are castaways who cling to the uncertainty of a love relationship that might justify their existence.
Similarly, Matteo Garrone’s next feature film, Primo amore (First Love) (2004), dealt with personal obsessions and unrequited love. In this psychological tale about a goldsmith in love with a lovely intelligent young girl, whose innocence verges on passivity, the compulsive tradesman feels compelled to mold her to his like and thus gradually destroys the relationship. Invited to compete at the Berlinale, the film received a Silver Bear for Best Soundtrack, awarded to Banda Osiris
Upon reading Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra, Matteo Garrone wanted immediately to film the novel. “The raw material I had to work from with was so visually powerful that I merely filmed it in as straightforward a way as possible, as if I were a passerby who happened to be there by chance.” This approach is both the strength and the weakness of the film. The setting is the crime-soaked Neapolitan suburbs of Scampia and Secondigliano, where decrepit and rundown housing blocks, shot in bleak ash-white colors, signal that crime is not only a way of life here but the only hope for survival amid daily shootings.
Five stories are intertwined in the narrative. In the most intriguing of the episodes, 13-year-old Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) can’t wait to join one of the warring Camorra families in the neighborhood. Pushed to show his loyalty, he arranges for the killing of a woman in the block whom he had previously helped with food deliveries. Teenagers Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), crazy about Brian de Palma mafia films, steal guns and break our on their own in a gun-shooting spree, to be eliminated by the mafia. Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a pay-runner to families with mafia members in jail, feels the sweat run down his back when the war between Camorra families escalates. Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a fashion-model tailor who cannot resist a bribe from a Chinese underground operator, sees his new benefactor rubbed out before his eyes. Franco (Toni Servillo), a political manipulator, and Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a young university graduate on his first job, don’t see eye-to-eye when the poor rural people become innocent victims of the Camorra’s waste-disposal scheme.
Gomorra shows the nitty-gritty of the Camorra imperium – without the diamond rings and smoke-filled rooms of Hollywood mafia genre films.
– Ron Holloway
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