Friday, September 25, 2009

Gomorrah: Grade B

Gomorrah (2008)
Salvatore Cantalupo, Salvatore Abruzzese, others; Director Matteo Garrone. (Italian, subtitled).

The movie documents some activities of the Camorra, the crime syndicate of Naples. The American spelling of the title is arbitrary.

The camera stays mostly close up on various characters as they extort money, trade guns and drugs, commit murders, make dirty deals, and intimidate people. A postscript emphasizes that these are genuine activities of the Camorra, which is a plague on southern Italy.

The narrative skips among three threads: two airhead young men who want to be gangsters find a cache of weapons and embark on an “independent” life of crime, which is not tolerated by the mob; a high fashion tailor sells trade secrets to a competing Chinese couture house, a move the mob does not appreciate; and a group of mobsters provide a discount hazardous waste disposal service, but they just bury the stuff illegally at night.

The movie is confusing. You can vaguely discern the outlines of the three threads, but they don’t intersect and lack internal structure. None has much dramatic tension or character motivation. Unidentified people are killed for vague reasons not established. There is no unfolding drama as in The Godfather or Goodfellas. Rather, daily murder and mayhem are as mundane as going in to the office every morning. Ignorance, decay, poverty, and egocentricity are palpable and stifling. Acting and directing are so good it doesn’t seem like acting and directing. You feel you are watching a verite documentary.

There is a keen feel of reality, as if you had been inserted into Camorra operations without a clue. You would be confused and disoriented, horrified and frightened. The close camera gives that sense of presence. Sometimes I thought I was a mosquito about to buzz into someone’s ear. Even long shots are framed by a close-up detail like a window frame so you always know where you are located in the scene. The camera did not seem to be hand held, although it moved around anthropomorphically. The sense of presence given by the camera was something I had not experienced before. You could almost smell the body odor of the characters.

What makes this movie worth watching is the extremely fine cinematography. I was enraptured for the entire 90 minutes by the pictures, even though I had little idea what was going on. Every shot was stunning in color, composition, and point of view. You could turn the sound off and enjoy this movie. I have rarely seen such a confident camera. To fill the frame with a close profile and watch a man smoke a cigarette takes guts. You have to truly believe it is an excellent shot to spend a full 15 seconds on it. And in this film, there were a lot of courageous shots and they were all excellent. I often paused the DVD to take a longer look.

The movie is “presented by” Martin Scorsese. I’m not sure what that means, but his imprimatur is not wasted on this cinematography.

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