To ready yourself for Gomorrah, try to imagine a whole season of The Wire compressed into a single movie, set in Naples instead of Baltimore, populated with a bevy of middle-management criminals but nary a cop, and even less inclined to resolve its storylines than it is to spell anything out — except, of course, for that grimly punning title, by which Italy's vast, fearsome, and distressingly influential Camorra crime network has been linked to the doomed Biblical city.
In other words, here is a movie that probably won't make you want to run right out and become a mobster. If anything, director Matteo Garrone's film comes off as a de facto rebuke to American mafia-movie glamour — but it does so without a trace of moralizing, and in that way it is as impressive as it is depressing. Based on journalist Roberto Saviano's bestselling 2006 exposé, for which the writer reportedly now lives under police protection (assuming he is still alive), Gomorrah combines familiar Italian screen actors and nonprofessional locals (some with well-established rap sheets) into a handful of variously doomed characters, flitting between vignettes of urban desolation in which brutality comes out of nowhere because corruption is everywhere.
Here you have the eager 13-year-old drug mule in training (Salvatore Abruzzese) making good with the older thugs by retrieving a discarded gun. And now here's the glum functionary (Gianfelice Imparato) making rounds to dispense Camorra cash. And there's the middle-aged tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) sneaking under his mob-payroll table to tutor a factory full of Chinese seamstresses. And there, the educated young man (Carmine Paternoster) who doubts his prospects in the business of industrial waste removal, only to have his infuriated boss (Toni Servillo) bark at him to "go make pizzas" instead. And of course you won't soon forget the Scarface-wannabes (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) skied up on coke and peacocking around in their skivvies and sneakers, blasting off their stolen sub-machine guns.
The style approximates documentary filmmaking, and the substance makes clear the banality of evil, the brittleness of community, and the impossibility, under circumstances like these, of real dignity. Authenticated by its bleak sense of entrenchment and impenetrability, Gomorrah can be hard to follow, but not for any lack of striking, lasting imagery.
Garrone shot much of the movie himself, and his pitiless camera always seems to be in the right place at the right time, particularly when the characters whose endangerments it records have exactly the opposite fortune. The whole affair becomes deliberately, chillingly prosaic, from the tanning-salon bloodbath of the movie's opening to the beachfront front-end-loader body disposal at the end.
By which point, and especially with the film's title in mind, you may be waiting for the ultimate Vesuvian doomsday to bury everyone in a wall of volcanic ash. But you'll also know that won't happen, because it would imply an implausible fiction as justice prevailing.
Instead, you'll get end-credit footnotes about a mob that's statistically more lethal than al-Qaeda investing its fortunes in the reconstruction of the World Trade Center, among other things.
Really, there is no way to ready yourself for this, not unless you can fool yourself into finding optimism in the take-home message: What a waste.