There's only one moment in the new Italian film Gomorrah that resembles the gangster movie as we know it. In a tanning parlour, assorted fleshy men stand gleaming in the blue light of their cubicles. Backs are slapped, grins grinned, jokes cracked. Then suddenly, bada bing! – or however that translates in Neapolitan dialect, the main language of Matteo Garrone's extraordinary drama.
Set around Naples, Gomorrah is an everyday epic of criminality, exposing the activities of the Camorra, the underworld network that holds sway in that region. But perhaps "underworld" isn't the right term: judging by Garrone's film, there's nothing remotely surreptitious about the Camorra's activities. In the world of Gomorrah, crime is simply the business of everyday life.
The film is based on a book by journalist Roberto Saviano (also one of the film's co-writers), whose revelations about what's known locally as "the System" proved so incisive that he's been under police protection for two years. Director Garrone may need his own protection because – while Hollywood gangster cinema has traditionally tickled and flattered the Mob – there's not an iota of glamour in Gomorrah's harsh, unforgiving tableau.
Gomorrah comprises five interleaved stories. One strand involves an angelic-looking boy, Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), who wants to be a gang foot-soldier. He passes his audition: donning a bullet-proof vest, he stands to be shot at, then is told, "Now you're a man". At home, he proudly admires the bruise on his chest: a medal of war, but also a reminder that, like everyone in the Camorra's circle of hell, he's already been kissed by death.
We also meet Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a bagman who scuttles around in his respectable windcheater doling out cash to families of faithful Camorra members. Then there's Pasquale, an expert tailor on a couture-house shopfloor, who gets into deep water when he agrees to moonlight giving lessons to a rival Chinese concern. A dash of black comedy is provided by two young yahoos (Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone), who fancy themselves as go-it-alone outlaws: they're first seen swaggering around like children, making "pow! pow!" noises and fancying themselves as Tony Montana, Al Pacino's anti-hero in Scarface. They're almost lovable in a pitiful way: one has a raspy bulldog voice, the other a nebbish whine, and their adventures constitute a sort of ill-fated love story.
In the fifth story we see the System's respectable face, represented by dapper Franco, whose lucrative business is the disposal of toxic waste as landfill. In a quarry, he smilingly oversees a gang of children that he's enlisted to drive trucks – their spilled contents having already left one adult looking like the English Patient. The film's most chilling moment comes when an elderly peasant woman gives Franco and his lieutenant a tray of peaches. Once he's on the road, Franco throws them away: they're toxic. A shot of the junked fruit brings the point home: the peaches are the people, poisoned by the Camorra's contempt for its own land.
The cast includes a few outstanding professionals, notably Salvatore Cantalupo as the careworn tailor, and the superb Toni Servillo as Franco. Best known for his lead in The Consequences of Love (smoothly creepy, like John Malkovich all'italiana), here Servillo is all bonhomie and vicious cynicism. But Garrone's truly creative casting is among local non-professionals, some with real Camorra ties: the tubercular-looking youths, the fat old men in beach shorts, the terrifying Zio Bernardino (Bernardino Terracciano) who rasps veiled warnings from a tracheotomy-scarred throat.
Garrone films in the kind of locations that are the Camorra's real terrain, notably a housing project with many apartments blasted or burned out. Little wonder that he has compared Gomorrah to a war film: this could be Beirut or Sarajevo at the height of their conflicts. Marco Onorato's camera creeps nervously, as if in fear of ambush, along the estate's walkways, where drugs are dealt to clamouring crowds and the walls resound with dialect cries from lookouts: we get a terrific sense of the noise of crime.
An especially sobering note comes in the end titles, which reveal how vast the Camorra's business is, how noxious its effects, and how involved it is in legit mainstream concerns: the organisation has apparently invested in the Twin Towers reconstruction. But for Garrone's characters, the Camorra is about daily life: the business of living or dying, paying your staff's wages, killing a neighbour. There's no romantic Mafia-movie stuff here, no noble omerta – just poverty, squalor and contempt for life. Matteo Garrone's film has the authentic ring of reportage, and by comparison, Tony Montana might as well have walked out of Tolkien.