23 October 2008

GOMORRAH (Dir. Matteo Garrone, 2008, Italy) - The Italian Renaissance

Italian cinema had a real impact on the Cannes film festival this year and Matteo Garrone's Neapolitan Mafioso urban crime thriller 'Gomorrah' was awarded the Grand Prix prize, giving indigenous Italian cinema a much needed commercial and critical boost. 'Gomorrah' is a terrifyingly bleak and grim neo realist film that focuses on five compelling narratives featuring characters who are in some way affected by the reach of the local mafia.

What sets this apart from Hollywood gangster films is Garrone's refusal to offer us a sanitised and glamorised representation of the Mafia, stripping away the romanticism so that what is on display is both repulsive and authentic. Though it would be a mistake to label 'Gomorrah' as a gangster film, it seems to make perfect sense when you consider how the absence of women in the male dominated landscape confirms that the unremittingly despairing reality is perhaps an obvious celebration of the conventions of a genre shaped by thematic obsession with male identity.

Based on a best selling and controversial novel by Roberto Saviano, Garrone certainly replicates the brutality and power that the Mafia exercise over virtually all the major facets of society including even the most banal physical chores like the disposal of industrial waste. The broad range of characters, symbolising all the spectrum's of Naples society allows Garrone to move back and forth, illustrating with expert detail and frustrating ambiguity how the Mafia control and direct the inhabitants as though they were insignificant to a much wider context based on an ideology that manifests violence, death and human destruction.

Hollywood multi narrative films like 'Babel' that have been underpinned with a strong socialist agenda and independent experimental narrative films like 'Memento' have meant that audiences are quite accustomed to being challenged with unconventional uses of narrative. Like much of world cinema or should I say 'global cinema', Garrone avoids the current Hollywood conditioning of over explanation that finds its way in much of today's hyper real high concept film making. Though this can be at times disorientating and even difficult for the spectator, it means the audience is left to fill in the blanks on my occasions.

Scorsese's 'Goodfellas' is probably still the nearest that Hollywood cinema has come to redefining the rules of the genre and imitating a stylised realism that ensured its appeal was not solely limited to fans of the gangster film. In one of the most chilling sequences, Toto, a 13 year old who has been brought up in a culture of crime, is inaugurated into the local gang through a twisted ritual that involves him and other boys of a similar age being made to wear a bullet proof vest and then being shot at by a menacing, gun crazy representative of the Camorra. Toto's confirmation of his passage into adulthood is immediately underlined when one of the older gang member says, 'Now you're a man', to Toto after having survived the ordeal of first of many gang rituals. The acceptance of violence and subsequently death seems to inextricably tied to male identity in a culture that seems to have become normalised to the lawless nature of organised crime.

What really fascinates Garrone above all is the idea of ownership; all those who are affected by the local Mafia are also viewed as part of them and anybody who entertains the notion of escaping from the domineering grip of organised crime is assured of death. Pasquale, the dressmaker, crosses the boundaries of his regimented, dull life by making a deal with the Chinese and though he survives the assassination attempt, the punishment he receives is being forced to have to do the every day, menial jobs that nobody really wants to do. Pasquale's final anonymity as symbolised in his transition from crafted dressmaker to routine truck driver suggests how the Mafia not only controls the local economy, but also shapes the fate of those who are courageous enough to question the very immorality of a bankrupt society.

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