Gomorrah is not glamorous; it is the opposite of almost everything that one has come to expect from a gangster film. Gomorrah has one goal: point out that the mafia is anything but good, glamorous or culturally redeeming. And it does succeed quite well. Yet the opposite of glamor—poverty, the mundane, fear—are harder to make compelling and whereas the flashy crime life that is so common in films—Scar Face, Good Fellas, The Godfather—though ending in violence so often, have an allure that is hard to beat. What makes Gomorrah a good antidote to those films, is also what makes it less thrilling to watch. Simply said, problems aren’t as fun to watch as unrestrained luxury.
Gomorrah follows six characters whose lives are affected by the Naples mafia: a tailor who works for a mafia financed dress manufacturer; a man who delivers weekly money to the families of the mafia who have a family member in prison; a young boy who is just coming of age and wants to join the mafia; two boys who want to start their own mafia; a young man who has joined up with a Don who buys toxic waste and dumps it illegally. It is not obvious at first what is happening. The film is a series of interwoven stories and it cuts between each of the protagonists. For half the film the film is a series of snippets from the lives each and if you don’t know exactly what is happening, it is clear that the life they lead is not a good one. If the men are not dead or in jail they hang around the huge tenement on the outskirts of Naples that functions like a mafia housing complex. The tenement is not beautiful (although the architecture is so strange it worth it to see the movie just so you can see the building) and looks more like an Eastern Block apartment complex.
As the movie progresses the stories of the protagonists begin to take shape and if the confusion and seediness of the early part of the film served to undercut in glamor, the lives the protagonists actually live undercut any glamor one might find. It is obvious that those who join the mafia are destined to live at the edge of violence and the wealth they seek may exists for some, but it can disappear so quickly and isn’t that much anyways—€10,000 to kill someone, won’t last more than a week. Swirling through the film is an ever present war. It is not clear who is waring against who, and that, again, undercuts the glamor. All one knows is that someone could get killed at any time and the reasons are completely unknown. For the viewer there isn’t any one or group to bond to. Instead the arbitrariness makes the threat real and anxiety producing. The film is not about the audience bonding with characters, but pushing them away.
Some of the protagonists will survive, others will be killed; some will leave the mafia, some will become even more entrenched within it. Each, though, will find that they will loose something precious. Yet what they loose is in so many ways nothing worth having. One of the characters, Maria, when her husband joins the other side, refuses to leave the apartment the mafia has been paying for. She gets to keep it, but looses all her friends and lives in perpetual fear, and what does she have? An apartment in a decaying tenement that is surrounded by mafia lookouts where gunfire can start at a moments notice.
Gomorrah, as the end credits makes clear, wants to be everything a gangster film isn’t: cold, depressing, sad, fear inducing. It succeeds, yet that success comes at the price of a pleasing narrative, one that pulls you along in narrative bliss. Instead, it is more of a documentary full of uncertainties and the grim realities. While Gomorrah may be the best gangster film ever as our ticket taker said, it is not the most exhilarating one. That is the way it should be, but in a world where Tony Montana is someone to idolize, as the two boys do in the film, Gomorrah may only collect dust. I would hope, as the author seems to, that writing the book and making the movie helps deflate more of those mafia myths that continue to exist.