Generally, I'm unenthused when it comes to mafia movies. Not that I don't appreciate the sadistic glee invoked by GoodFellas or Scarface, films that can often be enjoyed with a few beers and a wide-screen TV. It's that cinematically, mafia movies often glorify their protagonists as gods foiled by their own lust for power. Yeah, yeah, yeah. This narrative device is as tried-and-true as they come -- but it can get tired. Quickly.
Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by director Matteo Garrone's somewhat removed, nihilistic portrayal of the Camorra, Italy's oldest organized crime syndicate, in Gomorrah. Fragmented into five ongoing plotlines, the film is set in modern-day Naples where corruption and violence have replaced any recognizable law and order -- where organized crime has infiltrated every facet of society.
At times, the film is maddeningly bleak. A young boy's adolescence is stolen when he becomes a drug peddler for the mafia; his initiation into gang life involves being shot to the ground while wearing a bulletproof vest. Two brazen teenagers, who idolize Tony Montana and snort endless amounts of coke, steal from a trove of buried guns; cavorting along a riverbank in Speedos, besotted by their newfound semis, they shoot wildly at someone's tied up boat. Scenes like these, which the film is collaged with, have a strange beauty -- not glorified, but still vivid and fantastical.
Ultimately, it takes a bit of stick-to-it-ness to get through all 137 minutes of Gomorrah, especially when the plotlines are so unsentimental and focus so resolutely on blight and corruption. On the other hand, every movie mobster afterward will seem like a lovably incorrigible, power-hungry amateur.