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Gomorra – death as the price of a life you choose

boys at play

boys with toys

Gommora – Matteo Garrone

Thomas Hobbes, 16th Century English philosopher once described human life without government, state authority, as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Garrone’s award-winning film occupies a Hobbesian world: neither his Direction nor Maurizio Braucchi’s screenplay, based upon Roberto Saviano’s whistle-blowing book Gomorra (2006), make any attempt at a coherent narrative in this brutally effective, utterly unglamorous slice of life in the poorest quarters of Naples, dominated by the infamous Cammora criminal organisation.

Like the Mafia or Cosa Nostra, the Cammora is a criminal fraternity comprised essentially of historic family groups united by their indifference to established legal authority, dedicated to criminal activity on an industrial scale and deeply embedded in and protected by, the poor under-classes in many Italian and Sicilian cities. However, unlike the Mafia which has a form of pyramidal, hierarchical structure, the Camorra is a looser network of fiercely independent and aggressively territorial gangs whose main base is in the Campania region of Italy and the city of Naples, particularly the Scampia suburb built in the 60’s, a maze of high rise blocks suffering from endemic economic depression and high unemployment.

According to the closing credits of this powerful, disturbing film, Scampia is perhaps the largest drugs processing and distribution centre in the world; and inter and intra-necine Camorra gang wars result in a murder every three days in the Naples area. The publication of Neapolitan journalist Saviano’s book produced death threats. No such threats have been publicised about Garrone but this perhaps reflects the curious, grisly ambivalence of such criminal groups to film and books about their organisations. One Mafia boss’s mansion was a perfect reconstruction of one featured in Brian de Palma’s 1983 film with Al Pacino – Scarface: supposedly a favourite of Mafia members.

There has for me, always been something uncomfortable, even dubious, about the fascination the world of organised crime, especially the Mafia, has held for substantial directors like Scorcese and Copola. Something deep seems to draw them to this morally ambivalent, toxic blend of Italian machismo, sub-conscious Catholicism, blood-fetishism and corrupted forms of honour.

Martin Scorcese seems unable to shed this obsession, constantly returning to it again and again from Mean Streets, through Goodfellas to Casino. Even his non-Mafia films like The Gangs of New York reveal a perhaps unconscious fascination with physical power and what one can only call the terrifying thrill of sudden, unconstrained violence and death. Fascist chic. For me Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) is simply a Fascist without a Reich.

This obsession of Scorcese merits separate treatment: Copola’s Godfather and Godfather II are the better comparison with Garrone’s Gomorra. Copola used the Mafia context to confront us with two equally disturbing images: the gradual, tragic, corruption and moral degeneration of a man, a soul – Michael Corleone (Al Pacino); and the demonstration that organised crime has become a ruthlessly efficient capitalist business – with a deadly mission-statement; death as a business transaction – a matter of simple business necessity. Both in casting and narrative, Copola’s film while succeeding in its artistic aims, irreducibly perpetuates the sense, some would say myth, of the terrifying excitement, even glamour of its violent existential context.

Garrone’s film has none of this. No one in this film, man or woman, is remotely glamorous, still less the vicious struggle for survival that constitutes their lives. The men are brutish, over-weight, dirty and unshaven with nothing but momentary street-shrewdness to put up against Michael Corleone’s misplaced, misused intelligence. The only unifying threads that connect sequences of murderous violence in Gomorra are, vendetta and inter-family feuds and hatreds, territorial aggression and maintaining internal control through summary violence and execution.

The threatening visual atmosphere of Garrone’s Naples strongly recalls that of Fernando Meirelles’ Rio de Janiero in his 2002 City of God: the pervasive feeling that rather than Death seeking you out to fulfil your fate, you may randomly bump into him round any corner on any day for no better reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There is perhaps one underlying theme to Garrone’s treatment – the tragic inevitability of the corruption of especially young men, in such a starkly drawn conflict. Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone, non-actors play two maniacally unpredictable young Neapolitan teenagers, obsessed with guns, for whom the only way as two uneducated, dangerously volatile young men that they can get themselves noticed is random violence and ad hoc robbery – demonstrating God help us that “they have balls”. This off-the-wall unpredictability undermines the stability of fear that lies at the heart of Camorra control so these loose cannons are regarded as too volatile and therefore, because uncontrollable, threatening to the fear-based authority of the Camorristi. They are therefore tricked into their own elimination.

In a parallel narrative thread we see innocent young men, desperate to prove their courage and ‘manhood’ recruited through a rite of passage test of being shot at close range while wearing a bullet-proof vest. One particular angelic boy is drawn into participating in the execution of a woman in his own neighbourhood because of her alleged treachery. In a telling scene we see this young man confronted with the implacable truth of his life – here you are for us or against us. There are no bystanders in this battlefield of criminality.

A third young man is apprenticed with gratitude by his father to one of the more established senior criminal figures, Franco (Tony Servillo). Franco is deeply involved in a corrupt relationship with the Naples authorities to dispose of toxic waste; evading of course all the expensive regulations for such disposal, Franco acquires a piece land and using illegal labour simply dumps and buries environmentally life-threatening waste in open landfill. In the one positive outcome in the movie, his apprentice eventually walks away in disgust at this world where money and profit are the only motivators.

None of these threads resolves itself. There is no narrative-based intimation of hope or resolution. The ambivalent role of women in this society again strikes home: either idealised as figures of Madonna-like purity or used like whores, their destiny is to be the submissive possession of their men – respect for wives being one of the cardinal commandments of the Camorra and Mafia alike. But here lies the stark contradiction – the benefits of being idealised wives are overwhelmed by their deeper biological roles as mothers. So the wives of violent men have to watch as their sons are drawn into the same inexorable cycle of violence and death that is the other face of the male-dominated, macho-centric society they inhabit.

In middle class social groups to which inevitably I belong, we are largely bystanders to crime. We know it’s there, all around us, but we pay for and tacitly support the law and the police to keep it from impacting our lives. I cannot therefore judge how truthful is Garrone’s portrayal – it certainly creates a powerful sense of realism. If Scorcese and Copola distort reality by investing these gangster figures with an exaggerated kind of glamour, it may be that Garrone has given them a false air of unrelieved ugliness and lack of glamour. It is certainly hard to imagine why young men would want to join the bunch of dumb, dirty, ugly Cammoristi that Garrone portrays.

In the real world, apart from Saviano, one of the bravest challenges to the fascistic reign of terror exercised by the Camorra, underpinned by the pervasive traditional power of Omerta – the absolute rule of silence – has been by a woman – the diminutive Silvana Fuscito, a Neapolitan shop owner who has stood up to and drawn attention to the activities of the Camorra. Equally there is a long and tragic tradition in Italy of courageous lawyers and judges who have fought for the organised rule of law against the organised rule of lawlessness and have been executed for their pains.

These are deep age-old moral and social issues. I can only observe as it seems to me that some of the social compromises based upon spiritual equivocation within Catholicism and the fundamental belief in the doctrine of original sin has not only failed to constrain this evil but offers a rationale to defer retribution to the next life at the expense of confronting the persistence of evil in this one.

This week women’s rights activist Nahla Hussain, neither the first nor sadly the last profoundly courageous woman to pay for her fight against the misogyny of her culture with her life, was murdered and beheaded in Iraq. It is hard not to see parallels with the equally male dominated, macho-centric rule of the Mafia and the Camorra which like it or not, is embedded in a culture whose roots rest in a religious tradition profoundly misogynistic and endlessly indulgent towards the worst excesses of a corrupted sense of masculinity.

I am not religious: if I were I would thank God that in the randomness of life, I was not born into the Naples of Garrone’s film. Films cannot change politics but art holding a mirror up to show us unpalatable truths at least destroys our excuse of deniability. In a dangerous world where there are no longer any ‘bystanders’ or ‘non-combatants’ the coalition of men and women of good will and courage looks the only route to any kind of resolution or progress. The profound cultural contradictions here are perfectly demonstrated by the gender dilemma especially of women as on the one hand wives and lovers – and the other as mothers of sons.

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