Movie Review by Willard Manus
It's only a brief image in the film, a glimpse of Scarlett Johannson posing at the Cannes Film Festival in a stunning, cream-colored gown that epitomizes glamour and beauty. It's also an image that symbolizes what GOMORRAH is all about, how our glitzy, high-fashion, celebrity-obsessed world has its roots in exploitation and crime.
Ironically GOMORRAH won the Grand Prix when it was shown at Cannes last year. Now in release in L.A., the film is an adaptation of the best-selling Picador book of the same name by Robert Saviano, a Naples-based journalist who delved deep into the world of the Camorra, the criminal gangs which have turned his city into a corrupt, brutal hellhole.
Manufacturing high-fashion dresses--and tons of other apparel, footwear, wallets and handbags-- for German, French, Italian and American companies has proved to be immensely profitable for the Camorra, thanks to the unlicensed sweatshops they (and their Chinese partners) opened in a section north of Naples which came to be known as Las Vegas. With no regulations, unions or taxes to worry about, these clandestine industries have earned huge profits over the years. As Saviano notes, "This was plundered wealth, taken by force from someone else and carried off to your own cave."
The Camorra's power and influence extends in many other directions. The "family" makes money out of more than just fashion--drugs, cigarettes, construction, arms, tourism, fuel, cement, distribution, cinema and banking are just a few of their enterprises. It has been said that they have even bought shares in the reconstruction of the Trade Towers in NYC.
The Camorra is one of the largest economic forces in Europe, with estimated earnings of 150 billion euros a year. (The entire FIAT group has an annual global turnover of 58 billion euros). Like all criminal enterprises, the Camorra owes much of its success to the ruthless, violent way it does business. To get in the gang's way, or attempt to defy it, is to invite a beating or a throat-cutting. Camorra has murdered an estimated ten thousand people over the last thirty years, including scores of police and paramilitary.
GOMORRAH (the book) focuses on Saviano's personal journey into the secret world of the Camorra. He managed to penetrate its inner circles, learn how and where the clans operate, come up with shocking details about its reprehensible behavior, not just in Italy but elsewhere in Europe and even China and Africa, particularly where the dumping of illegal and even toxic waste is concerned.
The Camorra has dozens of international agents searching out abandoned mines, quarries and farms where, with the collusion of the locals, industrial waste products can be disposed of--radioactive sludge, smoke-abatement dust from thermo-electric plants and incinerators, paint dregs, etc.
What Saviano published was so damning and appalling that the Camorra put him on its hit list; he now lives in Italy under police protection. Yet he was able to help write the GOMORRAH screenplay, along with four other scenarists. Consequently, the film is every bit as authentic and powerful as the book, even though it differs from it in many important ways. For one, Saviano is no longer a character in the story. As directed by Matteo Garrone, the film follows the lives of seven characters who are involved with the Camorra. Two are slumdogs, barely teenagers, who think they are the reincarnation of Scarface's Al Pacino.
The interwoven storylines of GOMORRAH keep building in suspense and power. Garrone shoots in a terse, slice-of-life style, making excellent use of Naples's slums, factories, bars, strip joints and mob hangouts. He also coaxes masterful performances out of his large cast, especially Toni Servillo, Gianfelice Imparato, Maria Nazionale and Salvatorre Abruzzese. Above all, he rips capitalism's mask off and shows what its ugly, sleazy face looks like.