Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
The new film by Matteo Garrone, Dogman, opens in Seattle this weekend at the Grand Illusion Cinema. I look forward to seeing this one from the Italian filmmaker; in the meantime, here’s a look back at his 2008 film Gomorrah, a corrosive look at the Mafia that puts the lie to all the romanticized views of that world (and yes, that includes the Godfather films). The review was originally published in the Herald, the week of Feb. 27, 2009.
It’s no surprise the younger hoodlums in Gomorrah run around pretending to be Al Pacino in Scarface. They’ve absorbed the romance of gangster movies.
As though offering corrective medicine, this scathing Italian film has no romance in its criminal saga. It’s not just that there are no warm-hearted godfathers blathering on about the proper amount of garlic in the marinara sauce; this movie doesn’t even allow you the basic pleasures of a story unfolding in linear fashion. Instead, we’re dropped pell-mell into the ugly, violent world of the Camorra, a Mafia organization in and around Naples (their name allows the filmmaker to reference the biblical yarn about a corrupt city in his title).
A handful of different storylines weave through the film, including one about those two teenage gangster-wannabes, who make the mistake of thinking that they can parlay a cache of guns into the beginnings of their own little empire.
Not a good idea. In this arena, naivete will get you a permanent home in a ditch.
Other threads include a tailor working under the Camorra heel, whose factory exploits cheap-working immigrant workers, and a longtime mob operator whose underling might just be seeing the truth about this diseased system (their particular specialty is toxic waste, which they spread around like candy). Except for the Pacino fans, most of the characters are middle-aged men, and I have to confess that, especially with the different pieces of plot coming from all directions, it took me a long time to tell these various characters apart, let alone piece together their stories. Gomorrah obviously isn’t designed to make it easy for the viewer; it doesn’t seek to engage us, and it’s not in any sense entertainment, in the traditional sense.
It is horrifying, though. And the dangerous locations in which director Matteo Garrone did his shooting leave little doubt about the movie’s credibility on the subject of real-life issues that have made this section of Italy a hotbed of murder and corruption.
Gomorrah failed to get an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film, a category run by a relatively small group of voters who tend to like conventional pictures (it’s one of the only Oscar categories where the voters must actually watch the movies they’re voting for). The omission isn’t surprising—this is a tough film that doesn’t pull punches—but it still looks like an oversight.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.