High-Water Marksmanship: Gomorrah brings no life to the gunfight.

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Reading about a film should never be more exciting than watching it. And if that film’s subject is the mafia—whose daily dealings are as naturally cinematic as it gets—well, the folks at the helm really took a wrong turn somewhere. So it goes with Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s fictionalized portrait of Naples-based crime organization the Camorra. It was Italy’s submission for Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration and the thought that this was supposedly Italy’s most impressive film of 2008 is disappointing indeed.

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Gomorrah kicks off promisingly with a swift grab of the throat: In the alien blue glow of a tanning salon, a few image-conscious men are baking their skin and buffing their nails while dance music plays. Soon, a smiling and clearly familiar player enters, teasing one of the tanners about his body and asking as to the whereabouts of another guy. But as soon as the tanner’s back is turned, the infiltrator shoots him, setting off a series of quick assassinations. Pulp Fiction–style, the film’s title appears in larger-than-life block letters as the salon’s soundtrack continues. A raw, wild ride is sure to follow, right?

Not so much. You never learn who the dead or their killers were; neither will you really get to know the subsequent parade of characters whose nefarious activities are spied in Gomorrah’s excessive 137-minute runtime. A money-carrier delivers unlivable wages to the family members of imprisoned mafioso and listens to their complaints. A couple of kids, perhaps just out of their teens, think they can outsmart the local kingpins and work for themselves. A child who delivers groceries with an eye on thug life is unwittingly turned against his best friend when the friend switches sides in a gang war. An ambitious, decent young man gets disillusioned watching his boss get rich on toxic-dump deals. A tailor risks his life teaching Chinese seamstresses how to knock off haute couture.

Didn’t know that sewing could be a hit-worthy enterprise? Neither did I, but it’s certainly an intriguing plot line—once it’s given some more context, way too late in the film. Until then you’ll be too bewildered trying to make sense of the random, lopsided glimpses of disparate tales that Garrone attempts to pass off as an Altmanesque narrative. But there’s no spine attached to these tendrils, no storyline that dominates the others. I don’t give names because the script rarely uses any. Arguments have been made that this anonymous chaos is the whole point: The Camorra is everywhere and unforgiving. It offers neither glamour nor outsize personalities. Close your eyes and spin around; whatever or whomever you spy is likely touched by the organization’s corruption.

Fair enough, but that doesn’t make for compelling art. Gomorrah’s unflinching, verité style (much of it was filmed in a suburban Naples apartment complex that’s allegedly a hotbed for drug activity) makes you wonder why Garrone didn’t just make a documentary out of his source material, a nonfiction book of the same name by journalist Roberto Saviano. Naturally, a mob doc might prove a dangerous enterprise, particularly considering that Saviano has received death threats from the Camorra and has been under police protection since his book became popular. Still, when a handful of stats given before a film’s end credits is more concisely eye-opening than the two-plus-hours of fiction that came before it (one wallop being that some Camorra funds have gone toward construction on the former site of the World Trade Center), it’s clear that such gripping material deserved different treatment. Early on, the two power-hungry kids run around a building shooting unloaded guns and shouting, “I’m Tony Montana!” They wish.