Shooting Blanks in the City of Sin
Starring: Gianfelice Imparato, Nicolo Manta
By Tom Bevis
The screen is black, blank. You can hear a faint buzzing as the projector whirls. The screen begins to shrink, to fluctuate, and it almost seems to breathe. Then an image burns into the black: the bright, sterile, white interior of a tanning salon. In the next ten minutes, you will witness the cruel murders of a handful of men. Judging by the deep blood splatters juxtaposed by the blinding tanning lights and the bodies left to cool and collect flies, you can guess that this isn’t Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
No, instead, the story presented before you is much longer, much duller, and much less morally sound. Gomorra is an Italian film about organized crime, built up of five episodic arcs. You’re probably thinking what I thought when I first heard of this film. All the best mobster movies have their roots in Italy, so if someone can make a good crime flick, surely, it’s the Italians. Well, this is not that fabled Italian godsend.
I’ve seen a lot of films that tackle the episodic approach, and some of these are among the best pictures I’ve seen. And the good ones all have one thing in common: the episodes mesh together. Independently, they collectively tell one cohesive story and wind together in the end. The worst have quite the opposite in common: each story is tied to the other by a weak thread willing to snap at any minute. Gomorra is much like the latter. Each five episodes have merely one thing in common, and that’s the prevalent theme of crime. When presented together, they lack any cohesion or focus. Each episode, in fact, would have been better expanded and presented as its own film.
To make matters worse, none of the episodes, save one, have any semblance of resolution. No, I’m not a guy who needs movies to be neatly tied up in ribbon, but the audience must be given at least enough information to make their own inference as to how the film ended. Here, most of the episodes simply flat-line half way through the film, never picking up slack. Only one of the five episodes have any sort of resolution, and that is also the only one of the five that has any sense or morality or vindication.
As the stories work, twirling in and out of sequence, the audience can’t help but notice how slow the film moves and how choppy the story cuts are. The film exercises some of the worst pacing I’ve ever seen, some segments moving faster than the bullets the gangsters should be firing, some moving slower than legitimate money flow in the mafia. This bad pacing lasts for an excruciating 135 minutes, during which the same scenarios are played over and over in multiple scenes in one of the grandest displays of indulgence yet.
The camerawork compliments this sluggish pace and redundant structure. Each scene bobs, dips, and shakes as the camera men run to keep up with the characters and shrug their shoulders during the drawn-out conversation-based scenes. “The raw material I had to work with when shooting Gomorrah was so visually powerful that I merely filmed it in as straightforward was as possible,” says director Matteo Garrone. “I thought this was the most effective way of reproducing the feelings I experienced during the time I spent making the film.” Well, Matteo, if you want to replicate the feelings of making a film, then you’d better make a film about making film. The camerawork here, and the pacing, and the structure, should have been modeled after the fast-paced life of crime represented in the film.
While I didn’t like the film’s overall production, I have to say that the actors all carried themselves professionally and believably, even the younger members of the cast who found themselves tossed into some surprisingly deep roles. Each of the cast members were widely emotive and expressive in their stance and facial expressions, able to convey emotion beyond language and cultural convention. The fact that the dialog was so dull (or perhaps the English translation) makes me seriously lament the performances in this film that will overall go unnoticed.
My bottom line is, simply, this film will not be winning wide audiences because it is simply too slow, too long, and too misguided. The only thing worse than the jumble of stories and violent vortex of mismatched scenes is the disappointment that such great performances will be lost in this unimpressive package. It does, however, pose one interesting question: what would compel Martin Scorsese to present this film in America?