Sometimes you wanna see a Mafia movie, right? You know, Danny Aiello, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, one of those films where there's an extended family, a don, some police corruption, a few shoot-outs, and a great soundtrack. You know the formula. So if you're in that kind of mood, go rent a DVD. But don't go see Matteo Garrone's Gomorra if you want formulaic.
If, however, you want a gripping, grimly dark look at that other Italian "family," the Camorra, and the myriad ways it can corrupt and ruin the life of Naples and the surrounding Campania region, then Gomorra is the ticket. It won, after all, the Cannes Grand Prix. Deservedly so, in my humble opinion.
No point in telling you the story, the elements of which include murder, prostitution, drug dealing, child soldiering (obviously not only an African phenomenon), black marketing of all sorts, and of course - this is Naples after all - dumping toxic waste. If you want to get a feel for the film's aesthetic, check out the trailer from the official site.
If Gomorra rings true as no "Mafia Movie" has done before, it's because the film in no way even tries to glorify this plague on Italian society. It's based on Roberto Saviano's "nonfiction novel" of the same title, for which the author has had to live under police protection since its publication. From a 2006 article in London's Independent, The Man Who Took On The Mafia, by Peter Popham:
Roberto Saviano is in mortal danger. Yesterday he was - very belatedly - granted an armed bodyguard by the district of Naples where he lives. He is in grave danger of being shot, stabbed, blown up, and done away with because he has had the courage and the recklessness to spill a large number of beans about the Camorra, the Mafia of Naples. This sprawling network of criminal gangs, according to him, now dwarfs both the original Mafia of Sicily, the 'Ndrangheta and southern Italy's other organised gangs, in numbers, in economic power and in ruthless violence.
Saviano, a journalist who writes for L'Espresso and La Repubblica, has his own website, and it's worth checking for an extensive collection of articles in Italian and English, about organized crime and other topics. Matteo Garrone has obviously done his book justice in Gomorra.
- - - - - - - - - -
The Dardenne brothers (Luc and Jean-Pierre) know that you don't have to shoot a film that treats organized crime on location in Italy or in Brooklyn. You can stay in Belgium and show the kind of people that you might encounter on the streets of Liege or Charleroi or Brussels: taxi drivers, barmen, laundry workers, junkies, hit men...
Le Silence de Lorna (2008 Cannes Golden Palm nomination, winner of the Scenario prize) is another of the Dardennes' look at the kind of Europe that exists beyond the tourist brochures. Jeremie Renier and Olivier Gourmet, Dardenne regulars, are present (a cameo in the case of Gourmet), but the undoubted star of the film is Kossovar actress Arta Dobroshi in the title role. Lorna doesn't smile much in this world of petty mobsters and junkies and sham marriages, but when she does, Dobroshi turns on the radiance.
As with other Dardenne brothers films, the cinematography is spare, the story minimalist. There is suspense, but it's sporadic (why does mere mention of "the Russian" strike fear into your heart for Lorna?), and there's plenty of money manipulation, mostly coming out of crumpled brown envelopes. But like Gomorra, this is a film that shows the world of organized crime at its most local, where the impact on individual lives is the meanest.
Belgium, like other European countries, has its problems with "trafficking in persons." Walk down the wrong exit of one of Brussels' main train stations, and you'll wind up on streets that feature ladies-in-windows. The same thing applies to weekend rides in the country, where "Sexy Club" neon signs beckon to passing drivers. These places are likely destinations for real life Lornas, each with a story as compelling, if only prize-winning directors could film them. What goes on inside may have a legal veneer, but the trail stretches back to places like Albania, Nigeria, and the Philippines, organized by middlemen from "families" of diverse nationalities, from Italy to Kossovo to Russia.
Films like Gomorra and Le Silence de Lorna (to be released in the UK respectively in October and November) shine a bright, unwavering light on the human cost of life's guilty pleasures. No glamor, just grim, but wholly credible.