If you go to see the Italian mafia movie Gomorrah, and you feel confused, have a hard time grasping the plot, and wonder where the “hero” is, don’t feel too bad. You are reacting exactly the way you should to this brutal uncompromising portrait of the Camorra Italian mafia and its connection to global capital, which instigates relentless violence in pursuit of money and power. There is no sense in what you see in this movie. There is only murder and toxicity. This is no Godfather. It’s not Goodfellas or Scarface, either. There are no heroes here. There aren’t even anti-heroes, bad guys like Tony Soprano to identify with in spite of their vile actions. There’s no room in this film for the romanticization of the mafia. Using unflinching documentary-style realism, it uses the very specific incidents of the Camorra mafia to show the pervasive, poisonous force of capital, which soaks both the white and black market with blood.
Shot on location with non-professional actors and stories based on actual events, Gomorrah brings the Mafia Myth down to its ugly reality. The film integrates a number of stories: thirteen-year old Toto, who is being recruited by the mafia; Don Ciro, who delivers money to families of imprisoned mob members; Marco and Ciro, two young men who worship Scarface; Pasquale the tailor who works in a mob-run sewing factory; and Roberto who facilitates the mafia’s exploits in waste management. Through these intersecting stories, their relation to the environment in which the movie is filmed, and the spare cinematography, Gomorrah shows the dark, gritty underbelly of capitalism and its relation to organized crime. There is nothing flashy here: no artful montages like the famous baptism scene in The Godfather, no self-reflexive storytelling like we get in Goodfellas. What we get instead is brutally claustrophobic documentary realism that refuses to distance us from the ugliness that plays out on the screen.
The film does open with a blue-saturated, hyper-stylized assassination scene in a tanning salon, but the minute the film’s title disrupts the scene and the assassins step out of the salon, all color and glamour are erased. And that’s the filmmakers’ point. The movie starts by giving us what we expect from a mafia movie, but then immediately strips that illusion away and shows us the ugly interior of what organized crime really is. It makes us see how style can be just another front for urban decay and corruption. The blue vanishes; the color is washed out, and everything is coated with a kind of foggy, dirty, grimy grit. Water is not blue but murky brown and barely casts a reflection. The insides of the apartments are dark tombs. A strip of hazy light barely cuts through the windows, and not a speck of sky is visible through the dirty glass. The only color in this film is red blood or green cloth piled on tables at the sewing factory (representing a different kind of bloodshed). Director Matteo Garrone says, “We wanted to shoot the movie like a reportage of war, like a documentary.” Indeed the film does feel like we are thrust into ground zero of a war, and the violence and bloodshed come at us rapid fire with no rhyme or reason, just chaos as if we are in a battle zone. Without the tools to distance us from the horror of this world, we feel like we are under assault, with no heroics to save us.
Garrone uses natural lighting and wide frames to reveal the magnitude of the toxic landscape. Whether showing the vast decaying network of the housing projects or the seemingly bottomless pit of the quarry where the mafia is dumping toxic waste, the camera pulls back and fills every inch of the frame with the expanse of the endless corruption that has poisoned the entire environment. In the middle of all this toxicity are children bearing the legacy of capital and violence. In one scene, we see children playing in a swimming pool in a scene that seems innocent and unpolluted. But as the camera pulls back, it reveals that the kids are playing on the roof of an infinite labyrinth of squalid housing projects where they are surrounded by guns, drugs, and crime. In another scene, the camera focuses on the children running up to dump trucks and gleefully arguing over which color they want. “I get the blue!” “I get the red!” The camera then retreats to show the children driving the trucks and hauling barrels of toxic waste to be illegally dumped into the soil that surrounds their home. The children live and breathe toxicity. The children dumping the waste in the toxic dumps are the literal embodiment of the poisonous legacy they are born into. They are born to bear the toxic waste of capital, power, and corruption. In another scene, in which young boys are being recruited by the mafia, they are lined up and shot while wearing bullet-proof vests to see which boys are strong enough to make the cut. This ritual literalizes the dehumanization of children by training the boys not to feel.
The depiction of the two young men Marco and Ciro answers to the repercussions of this toxic environment that preys on children while also addressing the romanticization of the mafia in film. Marco and Ciro worship Scarface’s Tony Montana and they go through the film like a couple of loose cannons, blowing shit up just for the fuck of it. In the scene where they stand at the seaside wearing nothing but their underpants and shooting automatic weapons, they are exposed for the “boys with guns” they are. They look like infantile toddlers romping on the playground with toy guns, mimicking their favorite pop culture hero. Except these guns aren’t toys, and the playground is not full of green grass and swings. Instead these boys are stomping through a toxic sea brown with pollution, like they’re being baptized in their poisonous environment. Violence is so infused into these young men’s bodies and lives that they can’t even feel the reality of its repercussions. Violence just is. When Marco and Ciro are finally killed at the end of the movie, it is without glamour, style, or heroism. Tony Montana is nowhere to be found. The boys are shot down without fanfare, and their bodies are scooped up by a bulldozer and dumped like so much toxic waste.
All of this violence and corruption is presented so matter-of-factly that it’s easy to forget that Gomorrah is not a documentary. There is no moralizing, no grand-standing, but just straight-forward reporting. Even scenes that should inspire moral outrage are presented no differently than showing, say, the migration of penguins. For example, when the toxic waste manager recruits children to drive the dump trucks at the toxic waste dump, it is presented as a simple reality of life. This is what happens. The powers of capital, whether the mafia or the legitimate corporations that hire the mob to perform their “dirty” work, exploit children to move the toxic debris in a poisonous economic system. As hardcore as this truth is, the film passes no judgment but presents the scene as a simple representation of “how things are.” Part of the movie’s disorienting effect is a result of the film’s neutrality in relation to the extreme material being shown. It presents us with the facts, but we are given no position in relation to the facts. We are thrown into the vortex of violence and the all-permeating force of the corruption (it’s in the soil, the sea, the very air we breathe), yet we are asked not to judge but simply pay witness. If the film were to cast judgment or provide a narrative point-of-view, it would turn the stories into fables and undermine the film’s sense of documentary reality.
And this is reality. The housing projects where the majority of the film takes place are real and famous for having one of the highest rates of drug dealing, violence, and murder in Europe. The movie is based on actual events related to the real Camorra organization. But we have to remember that organized “crime” like the Camorra could not exist without its marriage to the “legitimate” forces of capital, and that organized crime is intricately connected to the European and global economic system. Scene after scene in the movie shows money being counted, exchanged, piled up, stuffed in boxes, traded for guns and drugs, paid by corporations to dispose of waste or to sew haute couture evening gowns in sweatshops. Money is what drives this toxic system, and the mafia is just another arm of capitalism. In the film, that connection is shown in the mafia’s relation to businesses like fashion and waste management. In one brief scene, the tailor Pasquale looks up at a TV screen and sees actress Scarlett Johansson at the Academy Awards in Hollywood. She is wearing one of the gowns sewn in his shop, a gown infused with the blood of the mob.
In that moment, we see the global reach of the mafia and the corporate capitalism that feeds it. The world is a toxic dumping ground for the poison that capitalism produces, and nowhere is this more clear than in the waste management narrative of the film. Try as it might by burying the stinking crap in the soil or hiring children to dispose of it, global capitalism produces waste that cannot be managed. When the entire economic system is poisonous, everything is tainted by it. The soil, the children, the housing, the clothing, the seaside, and the sky are all polluted by its toxic corruption. So if you feel like you can’t get your grounding in this film and can’t make sense of the violence that is unfolding, that’s because there is no grounding or sense in this system. There is only poison and the people who bear its legacy.
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.