Adapted from Roberto Saviano’s “nonfiction novel” raking the muck of the Camorra, the Neapolitan mob, Gomorrah has been received as a wake-up call, an engagé panorama from an often stagnant culture. Which it is, right from its cold-opening assassination under hot blue tanning lamps, a close-up on a corpse’s manicure encapsulating the dual malignancies of vanity and violence. A seemingly random eruption in an everyday place, it’s a brutal tone-setter — but the key word there should be “seemingly.” In fact we never see these characters again: Saviano and cowriter-director Matteo Garrone prize emphasis over context.
Garrone’s camera keeps close to its subjects, so that violence hits without warning — or reason. This visceral impressionism informs Gomorrah’s plotting, which is more opening statement than direct examination: five narratives aim to replace mob-movie awe with moral outrage, particularly through twinned (redundant) scenarios of machismo’s siren call and middle-aged deflation. Two Scarface fans get off playing kingpin, shooting stolen firearms in their skivvies, while a 13-year-old delivery boy comes of age as a drug runner for a turf-warring syndicate. Children are innocence corrupted; women either whores or madonnas betrayed by their male protectors: the fastidious bagman, doling out welfare in a fortresslike apartment complex, can only say “I’ll pass it on” when the water is shut off. But we’re restricted to his foot-soldier’s knowledge of — and responsibility for — such machinations, just as we only glimpse how a tailor’s knock-off couture touches us. More superstructural are the waste management dealings through which Saviano and Garrone expose no-questions-asked commerce, circumvented border controls, endangered cheap labor — and the toxic ooze just below the surface of the earth. Gomorrah, though, leaves things mostly buried.