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Cities in Cinema 2: Gomorrah

By John P. Houghton.

Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone, 2008

FAUSTUS. Where are you damn’d?
MEPHISTO. In hell.
FAUSTUS. How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
MEPHISTO. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe

Another modern-day Italian movie, filmed in a fabled city, starring Tony Servillo. Yet there end the similarities between Le grande bellezza and Gomorrah. The former is a love letter to the redemptive power of urban beauty. The latter is a suicide note, charting in unflinching detail the gruesome self-harm a city can inflict upon itself.

The Napoli depicted in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah is a place of irredeemable corruption. The sprawling nature of the film, portraying half a dozen loosely interlinked storylines, reflects the multiple ways in which the local mafia, the Camorra, has inveigled its way into every part of civic, social and economic life. Waste disposal, people smuggling, drug dealing, garment manufacturing, gun running, money lending – all is in the control of the crime syndicate.

The physical and moral pollution of the city runs deep literally and symbolically. The Camorra profit from illegally burying carcinogenic waste in disused quarries on the edge of town. As a result, not only do the living die young of disease, but the unborn come into life already corrupted by toxins both chemical and criminal. There is no innocence lost in Napoli, for there is no innocence to found even at the beginning of life.

Franco, the fixer who oversees the disposal of the barrels of waste, played by our friend Tony Servillo, dumps a tray of peaches gifted to him by an elderly neighbour. They have grown near to a quarry, and he knows that they are as tainted as he is. This relatively innocuous act triggers one of the very few points in the film at which a character makes a stand against all-pervasive corruption.

His apprentice Roberto walks away from a potentially lucrative career in search of a better, that is less morally compromised, life. Franco argues, both with Roberto and his own agenbite of inwit, that he is not a bad guy; he simply cleans up the mess created by others. He is amoral functionary, not an immoral agent.

This sequence is striking because it is unique in the entire two-hour stretch of the film. No other character walks away successfully and unharmed. Don Ciro, the money man who buys the silence and loyalty of local families tries to negotiate his way out of a conflict between two warring arms of the syndicate. “War is not for me”, he explains to one of the local bosses, and like Faustus is told: “But you are in it”. Pasquale, the garment maker, tries to cheat the system, and ends up financially ruined and very nearly killed.

If there is a central character in Gomorrah, other than the city itself, it is Totò; a young boy who starts the film running errands for his shopkeeper mother and ends it playing a central part in gangland execution of a young woman. We are returned again and again to this theme of innocence made impossible and hope extinguished.

In this bleak landscape, what role does Napoli play? First, we should be more specific. The film is set in and around the ‘Sails of Scampia’ modernist housing estate in the city’s Northern suburbs. The project is named after the design of the dominant blocks, which were built to mimic the sloping sails of a ship.

The Sails were the subject of the 2012 documentary film Resistenza, which recorded residents’ day-to-day lives amidst “poverty, decay, criminality and local drug selling and using”. That film’s title reflected the resilience and fortitude of the locals as they “fight…to make a neighbourhood a better place to live”.

In the fictional world of the Gomorrah, there is no such positive determination. The residents fight only each other, and in moments of reflection their own consciences, culminating in Totò’s cold-blooded act of betrayal.

In his essay ‘Badfellas’ for Slate magazine, Jonah Weiner describes Gomorrah as a “harsh corrective” to the movie’s industry’s infatuation with the mafia: “No matter how bleakly mob movies end, they are invariably intoxicating. (What is Goodfellas‘ famous Copacabana tracking shot if not a virtuoso dance of seduction, tugging us tipsily through the warm belly of underworld privilege?) Gomorrah, by contrast, is great precisely because it’s repulsive.”

We can make a similar case for Garrone’s depiction of the city. Even films which depict the seamier side of urban life in Italy fall back on long, lingering shots of the country’s rich cultural heritage. Amid such evidence of human achievement, there must be hope for a better future, is the implicit message.

There are no such scenes and no such reassurance in Gomorrah. The spaces within the city have either been abandoned or desecrated. Its monuments speak only of municipal failure and architectural hubris. In one of the few scenes outside Napoli, on a business trip to Venice, Roberto stares agape at the strange sights of buildings that are not burned out or covered in graffiti marking out gangland territory.

Yet Napoli is more than a neutral stage. The people we encounter are the essential products of the city’s toxic soil, corrupt institutions, dysfunctional housing estates and decaying public spaces. Don Ciro, Pasquale, little Totò; they all issued from the cankered kennel of the city’s womb, and are every bit as poisoned as the peaches thrown into the gutter by Franco.

To conclude, I argued above that aside from the city itself, Totò is the ‘main character’ in Gomorrah. I make this case on the grounds that his story is closest to a conventional cinematic ‘journey’, albeit a morally downward one. The audience is invited at first to invest some early hope for redemption in his wide-eyed naivety.

I also argue that the most significant characters for what they reveal about the soul of their city are the wannabe gangsters Marco and Ciro (who is distinct from the Don Ciro character mentioned earlier).

They are the perfect products of their environment. Their sole desire is gangland glory, their only thrill comes from the barrel of a gun, their only cultural reference points are ultra-violent and “invariably intoxicating” Mafia movies. With his near-emaciated body, Ciro in particular looks like the product of bad soil that has been starved of all nutrients.

The film ends with their execution. They do not die in a blaze of glory. They are shot in the back of the head after their scheming irritates the local caporegime. They are carried away in the arms of a JCB, raised to the heavens as if offered in sacrifice to a higher power. Yet this is no ritual act of human sparagmos, as depicted in Pasolini’s Medea. There is no victory of vindication, no redemption or renewal. They are two more victims of an infernal urban war.

In the opening scenes of Le grande bellezza we see the legend Roma o Morte. The equivalent epigram for Gomorrah would read Napoli è la morte.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities. He tweets at @metlines

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 6th, 2017.