(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2009)
One problem with movies about organized crime, if you’re not part of that scene in real life, is that it’s hard to gauge their authenticity; often, of course, their main reference points seem to be other movies, and if it’s not that, then it’s usually a stylized minimalism often seeming to be constructed mainly on the imperative of not referencing other movies. Certainly the gangster life is disproportionately covered in movies compared to most others; and while these films frequently claim social relevance, they’re usually relevant (if at all) in the same narrow way.
Matteo Garrone’s Italian film Gomorra belongs broadly to the category; incorporating five intertwined plot lines, it examines the reach and impact of the Neapolitan Camorra. Some of the behaviour seems familiar too – the strutting, preening, swaggering, gun waving. But Garrone escapes the genre quicksand, in part by showing how cultural images and clichés bamboozle the criminals as much as anyone else. A group of overweight gangsters, pampering themselves in the spa to get sleek and tanned, are suddenly blown away. A couple of perilously immature guys who think they’ve absorbed the ghost of Al Pacino in Scarface are obviously heading for a correction. There’s little sense in the film that much of anyone is getting seriously rich (except maybe a businessman who builds his waste disposal practice on circumventing environmental regulations, but then business occupies a different echelon, right?)
Around this, Garrone’s portrayal of the environment is detailed, convincing, and utterly grim. One of the main hubs of the action is a frightful, decaying apartment complex of the kind that might have represented some post-war urban planner’s shallow dream of a fusion between living and public space, with walkways and courtyards and open-air swimming pools. Now it merely evokes the geometry of hell. The police are mentioned, but seldom seen – the main social safety net is the Camorra itself, doling out (inadequate) weekly benefits for past services rendered and ongoing loyalty (there’s not much of a sense of what if any legitimate work goes on). In one scene we see a wedding party marching along one of the covered walkways; even such a life transition can’t escape the oppression (it sadly contrasts a brief scene where the businessman and his helper visit Venice, and comment on how all life’s rituals take place on the water).
The film overflows with intimations of human and toxic waste. The businessman, trucking hundreds of poisonous canisters into landfills, explains he merely helps people get things done within a stifling regulatory system. In the last shot, we watch corpses carried away. There’s barely a “beautiful” shot in the movie. And Garrone explicitly tags globalization as a big piece of the engine. Everything costs double since the Euro came in, says one woman (negotiating a higher price for leasing out one of those landfills).
Perhaps the most intriguing of the storylines has a tailor, working for a factory partly financed by dirty money, secretly providing lessons at night to a Chinese competitor. On the other side, the assembled sweatshop staff greets him like a king, and he’s well paid for it, but of course it’s a perfect capsule for how the West only wins the short term game by giving away up the long term one. Near the end, he stares at a TV showing Scarlett Johansson on a red carpet in one of his creations; a very direct connection to the good life, but so distant as almost to mock his own – still, at least his life goes on. Other strands follow an aging functionary who delivers the mob welfare program, and a kid taking the first steps into deeper involvement (and it’s implied, a very short likely existence from there). One of the film’s minor virtues is in not saddling all this with the kind of over-plotting (coincidences; inter-connections) tending to mark such structures; the links here are more implicit, and of course more devastating for that.
Gomorra’s virtues are in the working boots category: it’s powerful, well judged, and relevant. This is also to say, it’s not quite transformative. We should be severely worried about escalating urban hellholes and about increasing gang crime, but it’s not yet so bad that fixating on the latter doesn’t still represent a choice of sensationalized local threats over monumental systemic ones. After coming out of Gomorra, there’s not much you can do other than shake your head and hope it never happens to you...but at least that’s a plausible hope for most of us, for now anyway.
Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records came out in December in the US, but only had a few scattered repertory screenings here during February; it’s now on DVD. It’s the story of Chicago’s Chess Records, founded by Leonard Chess, a Polish immigrant. Seemingly oblivious (at least in this telling) to colour barriers, Chess started out with Muddy Waters, hit it really big with Chuck Berry, and provided Etta James her first big platform (as well as, perhaps, his secret affection).
The movie, for the most part, functions in affectionate tribute mode, moving smoothly through twenty years or so in just an hour and three quarters. The music scene always having been what it is, there’s womanizing and overdosing and violent scuffling and premature dying; Martin treats it mostly matter-of-factly, as the price of revolution. At the start, the records are labeled “race music” – the crossover is Berry, inventing a new era as effortlessly as comics fire off one-liners. Even after becoming famous, he sleeps in his car on tour to avoid patronizing segregated motels; his concerts have a rope down the middle to separate the black audience from the equally enthusiastic white one, until it breaks down. This is perhaps more about feeling good than about meticulous history, but the movie occasionally hits harder; a scene of harmonica pioneer Little Walter getting beaten up by the cops couldn’t be much more in-your-face.
It’s surprising the movie didn’t get more play if only for its cast, especially since it has Beyonce Knowles as Etta James, a little bulked up and earthier than usual both in her singing and her acting (as James, she sings the same At Last she memorably sang the day of Obama’s inauguration). Mos Def makes a colourful Chuck Berry; Adrien Brody as Chess, though, embodies the movie’s blander aspects.
But maybe that’s useful, in service of an ongoing suggestion of various manipulations behind the scenes; royalties being diverted from one performer to another, and a paternalistic attitude by Chess (preferring to provide the talent with cars and perks rather than actual cash) perhaps hiding some murkier bookkeeping. It kind of makes you miss the days when a little friendly corruption might be the price of genuine social and cultural progress.