Friday, March 13, 2009

A crime wave that never seems to break

There so much chaos in the Italian crime movie "Gomorrah" that it practically obliterates any semblance of plot. Rather than tell a straight-ahead story, director Matteo Garrone assembles a series of violent episodes that bring the activities of the Camorra crime syndicate to light. Garrone, whose movie won the Grand Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, may not have made the season's most entertaining movie -- an abundance of nihilism tends to loosen its grip -- but he has helped to call attention to the shocking brutality of life where money rules and nothing else seems to matter.

"Gomorrah" can be confusing, as full of violence as it is of ill-defined characters. The essential notion seems to be that the movie's criminals -- operating in and around Naples -- are foot soldiers in a vast army in which nearly everyone is expendable. The gangsters and the people around them live in a climate where violence prevails and where lamentation and remorse are luxuries few can afford.

At one point, a mobster -- part of a group engaged in what appears to be ceaseless internecine warfare -- asks his cronies whether criminals are nothing more than meat for the slaughter. By the time he raises this question, we already know the answer.

In some ways, "Gomorrah" represents a revisionist view of the mob movie as we know it. There are no wise old dons, and no one with whom we easily can identify. No ballsy gangsters or gutsy cops populate these mean streets. We don't always understand why two sides of the mob are warring. We don't care who wins. And if any of these thugs is having a good time, it wasn't apparent to me.

Garrone immerses us in slums that seem to offer no safe haven. Perhaps that was his point: to convince us that there's a life so alien to us that we hardly know it exists, and to insist that its effects resound throughout the world. A title card at the end of the movie tells us that Camorra money has found its way into efforts to rebuild The World Trade Center.

Garrone based his movie on a bestseller by Roberto Saviano, whose work brought attention to a crime syndicate that seems to have surpassed the Mafia in power. The Camorra deals in everything from drugs to toxic waste disposal, but the street-level thugs don't seem to be making outlandish sums of money. Instead, they scuffle. Young people are forced to choose sides in gang warfare. Innocents (a woman whose son changes sides in the gang wars) are executed. Nothing seems beyond exploitation. These gangsters make Don Corleone's minions look like Cub Scouts.

Various plot threads run through the story, but none are developed in traditional ways: A teen-ager is initiated into gang life; two dim-witted wannabes try to steal from the mob; a tailor is punished for trying to break from the mob and do business with the Chinese; a timid bag man attempts to switch sides in a war in which no resolution seems possible.

The movie's strength -- its refusal to provide us with the comforts of traditional narrative -- also becomes its weakness. If you're expecting a drama that places a premium on coherence and emotional payoff, you'll no doubt leave the theater wondering how "Gomorrah" could have garnered so much praise. The movie, which contains some startling images, winds up being more instructive than moving, a study in what happens when crime is so pervasive it becomes the norm. Money is counted. Bodies pile up. No one seems capable of stopping the carnage. To appreciate "Gomorrah," you probably must realize that Garrone isn't telling a story; he's describing a condition.

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