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Operation Gomorrah Essay

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The international marketing campaign for Gommora (Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone, 2008) described it as “the best gangster film since City of God”, a Brazilian film charting life in Rio de Janeiro’s deprived neighbourhoods and the impact of the gun and drug culture on the resident children. This shorthand evaluation of the film might be slightly misleading for audiences not aware of Roberto Saviano’s thorough journalistic expose of the workings of the different branches of the Neapolitan Mafia on which the film is based. They might mistakenly expect the glamourised version of violent masculinity that many Hollywood gangster films create, or a story of possible redemption and escape as in Cidade de Deus (City of God, Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, 2002). Gangsters continue to figure prominently in mainstream entertainment but are more lately being approached in new ways, such as through the mixture of crime, comedy and melodrama in The Sopranos(1)Garrone’s film combines features of realism, post-classical narrative experiment, and stylised mise en scène(2).

Gomorrah, not surprisingly, depicts an almost exclusively male world, even though Garrone’s narrative structure largely avoids the individualisation of other gangster films by following the different involvements of seven men with the criminal organisation. From Toto, the thirteen-year-old boy keen to be allowed to work with the mob, to Franco, a slick businessman running operations in illegal dumping of toxic waste, there is nothing glamorous about these men’s interactions with the Camorra. But there seem to be no alternatives for most of these characters – the Camorra’s intricate and all pervasive dealings seems to be all there is in this world. Drug and gun trafficking, money laundering, the exploitative clothing industry, delivering payments to family members of those in jail, contract killings, prostitution – we follow the protagonists in their transactions with this comprehensive “system”, as it is called in the book. There are no intersections in these characters’ storylines, no sense that an author is making choices from a wider pool of types of lives available in this area. This reaffirms the feeling that the Camorra is all-encompassing in the Neapolitan suburb of Scampia. The film illustrates the different degrees of corruption through the stories of these men: while Toto is on the verge of losing his innocence, Franco represents a more questionable ethical position.

The multi-strand narrative structure, the documentary-style filmmaking, the location shooting, specific elements of the soundtrack (the difficult Southern dialect spoken and the exclusive use of diegetic music), the use of non-professional actors, and the portrayal of contemporary problems position this film within the tradition of realism. As an Italian film, its lineage from neo-realism has been much debated, by the director himself as well as in reviews and other critical writing. Much of the discussion has revolved around the elements in the film that depart from classical neo-realism, particularly the lack of a clear moral message, or the absence of the humanist ideology that largely drove the neo-realist movement. While the film has been almost universally praised, its utter bleakness has also been difficult to stomach. The neo-realist project wanted to represent the lives and problems of real people at a particular point in Italian history (the postwar years) in order to bring about social justice and change. Gomorrah, on the other hand, because of its absolute concentration on the inside of the criminal world, and its refusal to ease us into its characters’ thoughts and feelings, does not point at any avenues for change or expressions of dissent. The only exception is Roberto, a university graduate and Franco’s assistant, who becomes increasingly horrified at the utter disregard for humanity displayed by his boss and abandons him. While driving away, Franco shouts: “Have fun making pizzas!” – perhaps confirmation of the total lack of decent alternatives.

Gomorrah also differs from classical neo-realism in its approach to mise en scène. The locations used in films such as Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, Roberto Rossellini, 1945) or Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica, 1948) grounded their realist impetus. Rossellini’s film plainly captures the city as a backdrop for its characters’ acts of resistance to the fascist enemy. De Sica famously spent many days scouting different locations so that every scene said something about the realities of Italian society at the time. As father and son journey through the city, we get glimpses of the workings of the police, the trade unions, street markets and the Catholic church, to name a few institutions. With the exception of a glimpse of policemen at the scene of a brutal murder, there are no official institutions visible in Gomorrah – all there is is the day-to-day business of the Mafia. The “urban nightmare” of gangster films is intensified and Garrone employs strategies of defamiliarisation and distortion, breaking the aesthetic codes of realism in the process.

Garrone films most of the action by closely following the characters with hand-held cameras as they prowl (the wannabe gangsters Marco and Sweet Pea), glide (Don Ciro the middleman), or are squeezed into dingy apartments, litter strewn streets and derelict spaces of run down housing estates controlled by the Mob. But a few sequences puncture the narrative in their stylised, expressionist use of locations. There is the opening scene in the tanning salon, where the electric blue, the buzzing of the sun beds, and the bland Italian pop music become the incongruous backdrop for the first of many murders. A disused gas station, filmed in a long, low-angle shot, looks empty until two small figures creep out of the gas tanks underground – their purpose (to inspect the empty containers) only becomes clear later. The two young wannabe gangsters run around in their underwear while they use heavy machine guns to shoot at water. The disused quarry where Franco is dumping toxic waste is transformed from the scene of tragedy and workers’ protest to a playground where kids are allowed to drive trucks – the extreme high-angle long shot mirrors the overhead shot of Don Ciro abandoning the scene of a crime. The use of the camera in Gomorrah often shifts from extremely close, cramped compositions to a sudden retreat into the distance. However, unlike the traditional function of establishing shots, helping the viewer to establish a clear sense of space, this adds to the sense of disorientation. Gomorrah is a world out-of-kilter.


  1. Martha P. Nochimson, “Waddaya Lookin’ at? Re-reading the Gangster Genre Through The Sopranos”, The Gender and Media Reader, ed. Mary Celeste Kearney, Routledge, New York and London, 2011.
  2. Eleftheria Thanouli, “Narration in World Cinema: Mapping the Flows of Formal Exchange in the Era of Globalisation”, New Cinemas: Journalof Contemporary Film vol. 6, no. 1, 2008, pp. 5-15.

Gomorra/Gomorrah (2008 Italy 137 mins)

Prod Co: Fandango/Rai Cinema/Sky Prod: Domenico Procacci Dir: Scr: Matteo Garrone, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso, Roberto Saviano, based on the book by Saviano Phot: Marco Onorato Ed: Marco Spoletini Prod Des: Paolo Bonfini Mus: Giovanni Guardi

Cast: Toni ServilloGianfelice Imparato. Maria Nazionale, Salvatore Cantalupo, Gigio Morra, Salvatore Abruzzese, Marco Macor, Ciro Petrone, Carmine Paternoster

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