Diego Maradona, the coked up little genius of world football, was an artisan and a renegade and nowhere did his penchant for sporting sublimity and personal self destruction flourish more than in Napoli. The scruffy, diminutive El Pibe de Oro (the Golden Child) won a World Cup for Argentina in 1986 but the next year he accomplished something even more transcendent for his club side, SSC Napoli, by winning if not single handedly then with singular indefatigability the 1987 Serie A title. It was the first championship ever won by a southern Italian team after almost a century of competition, an historic moment with ramifications more far-reaching than the confines of a football pitch. The tifosi adore the skewed virtuoso with the low center of gravity and a high tolerance for the bacchanal even though he left the club, disgraced, in 1991.
Reports propagate that Maradona enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Camorra, the mafia of Napoli. As Richard Williams of The Guardian noted earlier this decade, “Maradona’s nocturnal adventures inevitably drew him into a demi-monde of intrigue and clan warfare.” In his 1996 book “The Camorra,” Tom Behan underscored this intimate connection the footballer shared with the city’s organized crime syndicate. “Furthermore, there is considerable circumstantial evidence to link Maradona to the Camorra: he was photographed socializing with some of the Guiliano brothers on more than one occasion, he had relationships with women closely linked to Camorra clans, and developed a cocaine habit which eventually led to his rapid departure form Naples as a result of a ban on playing and the obligation to face a trial.”
“Gomorra” is the film about those who couldn’t scurry off. Based on the 2006 non-fiction exposé of Napoli’s organized crime clans by Roberto Saviano — a book whose publication meant that the author reportedly never slept in the same bed two nights running until deciding to emigrate late last year to avoid the constant threat of retaliatory assassination — “Gomorra” is grim, violent, visceral, fascinating, unnerving and unrelenting. Ensnared and centered in derelict apartment blocks stacked like LEGO on crank in the Scampia quarter of Napoli, it’s a stark and brutal panorama from director Matteo Garrone of lives locked in mortar and moral squalor.
It is filmed through a macro lens, with an unnerving claustrophobic view. This tiny prism is tight on the foreground, blurring the background out of focus, and so close that only a part of a person is visible. There‘s very little visual perspective, and the foreboding sense of danger this creates is palpable and redoubtable. Characters are captive. But so is the audience. Opening with a tanning salon massacre, “Gomorra” announces itself in a close-cropped hail of gunfire, the blue-lit beds transformed into blood-stained coffins. The camera work by Marco Onorato is raw but not jutting about in the all-too-familiar hand-held staccato.
As the movie embeds itself into five intertwining and engrossing stories juggled beautifully by Garrone and editor Marco Spoletini, the tension only intensifies. Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) is just entering his teenage years and recruits himself into the underworld. Sporting an England No. 7 sleeveless jersey, rings on almost every finger and plucked eyebrows, he endures an initiation both terrifying and uncomplicated in its warped crystalline concept of machismo.
The corruption of the waste disposal industry is unearthed by the travels of Franco (Toni Servillo), a snake smooth Camorra broker, and his fledgling protégé Roberto (Carmine Paternoster). Criss-crossing the country securing contracts doesn‘t leave much time for them, or the film, to sight-see., Even a Venice gondola ride is shot so tightly that we watch the wonder in Roberto‘s eyes but see very little of the sights.
Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) is an earnest, kindly and respected dressmaker who perilously befriends a factory of Chinese immigrants by tutoring them at night, for a fee, on sewing techniques while his own boss is financed by the mob. His arc provides the film with its most altruistic moments — sitting on the edge of his bed regaling his sleeping wife and child about the sumptuous bass dinner cooked by his hosts or the car rides to the factory where he is tucked into the trunk for his protection and pokes his head through a hole in the backseat platform to chat — but even these are cloaked in danger and threat.
Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), the middle-aged bag man, is a beaten down money carrier who’s face is plastered with a Buster Keaton melancholy. His plight only becomes more precarious as shifting clan dynamics alter his existence from protected foot soldier to vulnerable pawn.
And finally, two stupid ass punks by the names of Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) smashing through the film quoting Tony Montana, stealing coke from Nigerian dealers, pilfering ammo from mob bosses, letting loose cannons on the briny shore, signing their death warrants with chicken scratch stunts. But “Gomorra” isn’t a film which lets you off the hook by telegraphing who survives and who gets snuffed. Everyone’s in the scope. The fact that Marco and Ciro each have a bullet with their name on it from their first steps on screen doesn’t mean there aren’t enough cartridges to go round.
Classic crime films such as the brilliant “Goodfellas” and “City of God” are phenomenal entertainment but they are filled with reassuring qualities. But “Gomorra” is bleak. It’s the mafia film redacted, stripped of the soothing effusions and familiar tropes; there is no guiding, helpful voiceover, no death rattle soliloquies, no cop from the neighborhood, no intrepid photographer, no sagely pontificator, no soundtrack to bop along to, and no body making it out of the neighborhood.
And there’s no code, either. Revenge is sought but splayed, directed in a spiral. A scene at the morgue where Toto and the older young men in his clan plot retribution underscores that they don‘t know who ordered the hit on their compadre. Yet they feel compelled to react, mercilessly. But there’s no color coded visual to distinguish friend from foe, no venerated and feared families, no regard for territory. It’s a horizontal hierarchy, not vertical, so it’s all happening at ground level. Nihilism can be born in those with no future, but what if a community populated by Toto’s has no past, just a cycle of living in a regurgitated present. “Gomorra” ends with a dump truck and corpses, a confluence of murder and waste disposal, in a present untended by a God, forsaken by man, with no hero, not even a footballing deity, in view.
(Previously released in New York and Los Angeles in January, “Gomorra” screened at the Portland International Film Festival earlier this month. It opens February 27th in Portland with an anticipated wider national release planned for the coming months.)