For Americans, Gomorrah will play like every other Mafia epic - and no other Mafia epic. The movie is named for Sodom's sister city and for the crime syndicate Camorra, which has made a Gomorrah out of Naples, Italy. The director, Matteo Garrone, working in the charged, realistic style of his predecessor Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano), achieves a journalistic drive on a scale so broad that it takes your breath away.
Like Rosi, Garrone puts together a machine-gun mosaic as he depicts the Camorra's domination of everything from public housing to toxic-waste disposal and high fashion. Garrone is telling his audience that the Camorra is no subculture: It is the dominant culture. Living with it in Naples is like living in an occupied country during wartime. You can join up or become a collaborator. You can keep your distance yet obey its orders. Or you can go into hiding. Otherwise, you die.
Criminal life in a closed organization becomes metaphoric in masterpieces like The Godfather. In Gomorrah it stays down and dirty. There are no great operatic swells in this movie. The movie derives its bleak magnetism from the partnerships Garrone forges with a handful of lead actors.
Without inflating their characters into arch-villains, these actors create indelible images of bravado and anguish. They anchor the action as the camera jabs like a stiletto in and out of parallel story lines. Gomorrah achieves cumulative power from its dense kinetic portrait of the insidious corruption that reaches from the cocaine-ridden underclass to the banks and corporations at the peak of proper society. The film's ability to humanize each stratum makes it ineluctably involving.
We meet a half-dozen lead characters after they've settled on choices that will wreak havoc on their lives. They're like psycho-sociological equivalents of the figures that whiz by you in a shooting gallery: The film acquires its staccato rhythm from the dexterous way it intercuts variations on fools' progress.
The movie finds tragedy-streaked pathos (and sometimes comedy-streaked pathos, too) in the plights of the young, the middle-aged and old-timers. Scrawny Ciro Petrone is a teenager who catalyzes a plan for him and his partner (Marco Macor) to raid a cache of high-powered weapons. As they strip to their underwear and flaunt their newfound firepower in a race up a muddy shore, Petrone is almost a visual effect himself. He's a live-wire squiggle on the screen.
More important, he's the spirit of anarchy unleashed in a world devoid of values. A fan of Tony Montana in Pacino's Scarface, he thinks he can be Tony Montana. He's living in a world of bad dreams. The Camorra keeps things real.
In other films, Salvatore Abruzzese, as a big-eyed grocery delivery boy, would be a victim. In Gomorrah, he's an assassin in the making. He sees the sordid conflicts around him as spectacle and throws himself into them without regard for consequences.
Salvatore Cantalupo suffuses the role of a working-class artist with urban poetry - he's a master dressmaker in his prime. The Camorra relies on him for gowns that drape the shoulders of stars at Venice or Cannes. But he moonlights as an instructor for Chinese upstarts who want a piece of the high-fashion action. His growing rapport with his secret partners would be heartening - almost comic relief - if the ever-present threat of the Camorra didn't keep an audience's collective heart in its throat.
In the film's most excruciating scene, child drivers navigate huge trucks containing vats of toxic waste down steep declines. It's one of the scariest trucking set pieces since the anti-heroes of The Wages of Fear transported nitro through a wilderness.
Gomorrah, the most exciting Italian movie in years, is a contemporary milestone about the wages of fear, corruption and cowardice.
(IFC Films) Starring Salvatore Abruzzese, Gianfelice Imparato, Toni Servillo. Directed by Matteo Garrone. Unrated but includes drug use, violence, profanity. Time 137 minutes. In Italian with English subtitles.