Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gomorrah (2008)

Why is it that some films feel like absolute cheats, whether they are intentionally so or not? And why is it—regularly—true that those which aspire to simply record life in all of its unpleasantness and foulness seem the most insincere? Not that what they are depicting is untrue. Well, at the risk of quoting a certain masked avenger, sometimes the truth isn't good enough. Sometimes people deserve more.

The birthplace of the Renaissance, Italy has bestowed upon the world art and philosophy of voluminous invaluableness. The Renaissance era humanists were extolling the humanism (which it would not be called for several centuries) of the middle ages (or the studia humanitatis), the field of which covered nearly everything beyond theology and the natural sciences. Specifically linking the acclaimed Italian neo-realism of the mid-twentieth century to Renaissance art, it is crucial to keep in mind the Catholic bridging of the mortal and the divine. This is extensively evidenced in Renaissance art by Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, Titian and Raphael to name but a few titans.

So it cannot come as any great surprise that Italian cinema is intrinsically a deeply humanistic one. Routinely heralded as the precursor to neo-realism, Alessandro Blasetti's 1860 (1934) depicted Garibaldi's conquest of Sicily from the perspective of two peasants played by nonprofessional actors. Neo-realism, however, though manifestly dwelling in the realm of the corporeal, is stanchioned by the transcendence of a culturally pervasive ecumenical fealty. Ladri di biciclette or The Bicycle Thieves for but one example targets the minutia of postwar Italian poverty through the story of a man and his child, yet also reaches an indubitable spiritual elucidation. Marrying an earthly compassion and natural law to the Catholic culture of the world's host for Vatican City through art is perhaps Italy's most singular graceful and (fittingly) thorough characteristic through all of its art, emanating from the Catholic cogitation itself.

Consequently, the recent Italian blockbuster Gomorrah is an even greater disappointment considering its national origin than it would be otherwise. Drab, dull and dire, Gomorrah is another one of those ugly films that look like they were shot on 16 MM (as Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler actually was), but without any kind of counterbalancing incentive to watch the entirety of the picture aside from being fair to it. Italy, like most of Europe's nations (the most outstanding exception being Muslim Albania), is post-religious in its prevalent culture today, and most Italian films have become less and less anagogic as a result. Gomorrah, though ironically taking its title from the damned Biblical city, has no otherworldly pulse or even a hint of such. That may be writer-camera operator-director Matteo Garrone's scheme—to make a film entirely devoid of any hope, both bodily and beyond—but the effect is one of great, uninvolving tedium.

Some critics have evidently championed Gomorrah because this chronicle of the Camorra crime organization of Naples is the anti-Godfather, a bleak and starkly unromantic telling of the true Mafia in all of its depraved manifestations. However, the picture is only moderately worthwhile in one regard, which is its snapshot-like pictograph of a beleaguered city and the criminals who feast on it like scavengers assaulting a carcass. The film strives to make some scathing points about gangster films entire, particularly in its transparent juxtaposition of the fantasy that enthralls two idiotic Tony Montana-worshipers and Camorra gang recruits with the blighted, impoverished and crime-infested hellishness that Garrone's unblinking camera records. The entire affair reeks of gratuitous violence, such as an unnecessary, completely unconnected opening teaser passage in which a bunch of thugs murder a bunch of other thugs in a tanning salon.

Garrone's quasi-vérité stylistic is, theoretically, intended to bring the viewer up close to the events the film languorously tracks, but there is both too much and too little consistency of visualization to make anything look either as interesting or as pedestrian as they are probably meant to look. When a boy walks toward a camera as murder occurs in the background, Garrone finally creates a memorable image. Yet everything possibly interesting is stifled by too many plots (five in all, but they feel like ten) and one senses that Garrone and his large team of fellow screenwriters (Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso and Roberto Saviano, the latter providing the book from which the entire enterprise emerged) feel so obligated to cram in as much information as possible that the film cannot support all of its ambitions. This is proven by nothing less than the picture's conclusion, which meekly flashes a series of facts and statistics—presumably straight out of Saviano's book—as though the film's educational arsenal required one last textual barrage atop all of the scenes of insidious corruption, violent mayhem and licentiousness. Indeed, perhaps Garrone recognizes what is sadly evident—his film is at best a dissatisfying compilation of truisms that ultimately lead to nowhere but frustration. Myth is rightly viewed through a skeptical prism here, and Hollywood films which have glorified the gangster lifestyle from the 1930s to the 2000s should not be the only perspective when exploring this subject matter. However, when pain, pointlessness and plight are unwed to anything interesting or merely colorful, the unappealing flatness of simply watching the world continue to destroy itself is far less than arresting.

36 comments:

stew said...

ooooohhh............i think i saw this movie

Alexander Coleman said...

You think you did?

bruno de lucca said...

You got a problem with Italians or something?

Alexander Coleman said...

Bruno, I can only laugh at that.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Finally a review that calls this boring crap the crap it is.

I have not been able to comprehend the good reviews it has been getting.

When I saw it, I seriously wondered if I'd fallen asleep during a a "good" reel or something.

It bored me to tears and it dulled my brain.

Thank you.

Moses Hernandez said...

Yeah, I didn't get what was so great about this either. One of the most boring movies I've seen in ages. I agree with you that many of these gritty foreign and American movies seem the most disingenuous somehow. And awesome point about how the ending with all of the title cards giving us even more facts and figures shows just how weak the whole movie was.

Alexander Coleman said...

Phantom of Pulp, thank you very much for the kind comment! Yes, I agree with you entirely. As the film concluded I was actively wondering, "That's it?" Astonishingly dull, dreary and boring. I'm happy to hear from you; thank you again for the comment.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you as well, Moses. Yes, I've recently seen quite a few little indies and foreign films that seem to have suffocated themselves with their own sense of importance.

This film was especially disappointing, however. As the Phantom of Pulp notes, the hype here is not remotely deserved.

Chuck said...

Blunt, lively review. I'll have to see this, of course, but the reason I haven't yet is because I think I sorta sensed it would be this kind of movie. Fashionably overpraised.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Alexander, I agree with your suffocation point.

A great (IMHO) Italian film that got pretty much ignored when it came out in the US last year was Tornatore's THE UNKNOWN WOMAN.

I can't find enough superlatives for it. Then again, I may be alone (I was when I saw it at the cinema).

Alexander Coleman said...

Chuck, I have a feeling you won't like it much. Without trying to steer you away (as I'm interesting in seeing what you think, as always), it must be said that it's essentially a 135-minute marathon of unpleasantness.

Phantom of Pulp, interestingly, I too thought more highly of Tornatore's The Unknown Woman than just about anyone I know. It had some significant problems, and its tonal inconsistency is a little nagging, but, for sheer pulp (befitting your name), artfully composed and cinematically transcribed, one could do much, much worse. Interestingly, I found the Hitchcockian elements to be the most successful part of the film. And one thing is for certain: Ennio Morricone's score is sweepingly, almost obscenely beautiful. It made the film for me, and lessened the flaws.

Alexander Coleman said...

And thank you for the kind words, Chuck and Phantom of Pulp.

Phantom of Pulp, I too was alone in the cinema when I saw The Unknown Woman. Ha.

Phantom of Pulp said...

I agree, Alexander, that it had a couple of problems, but, as you said, it was great pulp.

The Morricone score is amazing. I drove 100 miles yesterday and listened to the score for the entire journey. It took me right back to the film, and beyond it. The Master has not lost his touch.

Thanks, Alexander, for your kind acknowledgments.

Alexander Coleman said...

I dare say, it truly is one of Morricone's most beautiful scores. He most definitely merits being called "The Master," Phantom. I should buy that score and listen to it in my car. Especially on a 100-mile drive!

It's truly a wonderful score, and I encourage everyone to seek it (and the film) out.

Thank you for your contributions here, Phantom. It's wonderful to have you aboard.

Phantom of Pulp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phantom of Pulp said...

Final comment (sorry to be blathering). The only recent Morricone score I like a little more (relatively speaking) than "The Unknown Woman" is "Lolita".

I'm very happy to be participating here, Alexander. I love your blog.

Alexander Coleman said...

Nothing wrong with some friendly "blathering," Phantom. I'm all for communication! :)

Well, I adore Morricone's work for Leone. His scores for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West are very close to my heart, but he has so, so many.

I'm happy to read that you're happy to participate, Phantom. Like I said, it's been a real treat hearing from you!

Anonymous said...

I hated this movie. You really brought this one down Alexander. Loved reading your piece.

tim watts said...

The trailer was good but your essay makes me want to stay away. Maybe I'll see it but maybe not.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Tim, I would be interested in seeing what you think of this film, but it's obviously your choice as to whether or not you wish to see it.

Sam Juliano said...

I certainly will get back to this review later tonight, but suffice to say that I dislike this film intensely! And I'm Italian-American, by the way, Bruno!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam. I look forward to your response. Haha.

muzz said...

as an alternative to "Gomorra", i'd like to recommend the excellent italian film "Il Divo".

The core of the film is based on the life of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, but the film tackles much broader issues, power & corruption / loyalty & deceit etc.

first class acting, beautifully shot, well researched

all round easily my favorite political film of 2008

http://european-films.net/content/view/1036/131/

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you for the terrific comment, Muzz!

I will indeed search for that Italian film. Thanks again. Good hearing from you.

Anonymous said...

Most unengaging movie I've seen in a long time. You nailed it to the wall, Coleman.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Anonymous.

Matthew Lucas said...

Glad I'm not the only one who was underwhelmed by this.

Alexander Coleman said...

Perhaps we should set up a society around our underwhelmed reactions to this. Although there seem to be a good number of critics who didn't care for it much, either.

It committed many of the sins people complain about in the context of biopics or historical dramas. Factoids without much greater meaning. A rather mind-numbing experience, especially when it's such a grim topic.

Sam Juliano said...

Excellent lead-in to humanism in the Italian cinema from it's beginnings to the present, and including the renaissance(and those classical artists, neo-realism and the natural sciences.)

And for the first time today I can say I am completely with you. This is a long, redundant, uninvolving,and torturous film that neither adds to nor informs it's subject with even a miniscule fraction of those renaissance masters gave us. I know you are not a fan of Meirreles's CITY OF GOD, but I found that a rathe rbrilliant film, and certainly more of a forerunner of this style than this bloated and turgid re-tread. This film is a re-affirmation of what we already know about criminal activity, and the plot is C-O-N-V-O-L-U-T-E-D.
Your review does this overatted film full justice. You even through the enterprise a bone, mentioning the masterpiece BICYCLE THIEVES in your text.

Your excellent critical dismissal of the film is typified by this insight:

"Garrone's quasi-vérité stylistic is, theoretically, intended to bring the viewer up close to the events the film languorously tracks, but there is both too much and too little consistency of visualization to make anything look either as interesting or as pedestrian as they are probably meant to look."

Fantastic review; well-deserved pan.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sam! It's great to be in agreement again, and so quickly at that! Haha.

Yes, even though I am not a fan of City of God, I'll be the first to say that this was little more than a retread of that film (which at least was highly kinetic, something the rightly-labeled "turgid" Gomorrah most certainly was not!). Like you, I found the plot(s) entirely convolulted, distancing and uninvolving. Hugely overrated.

Thank you for the kind words as well about the review, Sam. That means a lot, particularly from a fine Italian-American like yourself!

cinema guy said...

In my humble estimation, this is is a succinct, and on the whole very accurate description of the film, but I suppose I'll try to explain the slight differences I had with your take. While I too found Gomorrah to be unworthy of some of the lavish critical praise heaped upon it, I would say that it should also be applauded for (if nothing else) its gritty realism, While I recognize you might disagree, I think there is merit to a kind of non-stylized cinema (or at least an attempt at it) that addresses underclass or working class inhabitants, and I would argue that while there were major issues with the film, "falseness" wasn't one of them (unless one is speaking from a macro perspective), at least as it relates to the characters and scenes contained within. The trouble with Gomorrah (and you have stated the case against it well) is it ruined what were, on the whole, solid little stories, by having at least two too many plot lines, too many characters, and a lack of central focus, as unfortunately, everything of substance got lost in the morass. Personally, I had no problem with the style as it were (though I may need a second viewing to look closer at the "quasi-verite"), and I found the characters (as thin as they were) to be quite believable on screen. It's as if the film wanted to be Babel or Traffic, but there wasn't a strong enough creator at the helm to address the multi-layered issues they were attempting to handle. Subsequently, Gomorrah feels like three films stuffed into one. It most certainly could have been a successful violent crime drama ala City of God or Pusher, but instead tried to make larger socio-political statements and got lost in its own aspirations. You state it quite well in your piece, Mr. Coleman - "too many plots (five in all but feels like ten)" and, speaking about the filmmakers, they "feel so obligated to cram in as much information as possible that the film cannot support its ambitions". I too agree that the first disconnected scene was totally unnecessary and gratuitous and I feel like it does real damage to the credibility to the film as a whole. Ultimately, while I completely share your issues with the film's structure, I didn't find it at all boring - disjointed, a bit frustrating, and ultimately unsuccessful, but again, the sequences taken on their own were, for the most part, quite well done. Again, such does not make a quality film. There are just so few films that get elements of criminality even remotely right that it seems a shame that the many screenwriters and director Garrone couldn't have doused their ambitions, focused on two or three connected story lines, edited ruthlessly, and used the material they had for a second and third film. Restraint might be the operative word here, as in there was none. As you mentioned, the stats in the end were really telling - as in, "we know it doesn't all add up, but trust us there's a lot of bad stuff going on in this area"...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, cinema guy, for the exhaustive resposne to my review. Very much appreciate the kind words and thoughtful remarks in general.

I agree that there were bits and pieces that worked by themselves, but the grand tapestry that Garrone and company were so clearly interested in creating fell apart for me with too many plots and characters, as you say, cinema guy. I give the film some credit for the same reasons you do, and I think one could certainly create an accomplished work out of the same subject matter.

I agree that the film agonized over attempting to be a "Babel or Traffic" as you state, though I personally found the former quite problematic, too (and I liked Amores Perros and 21 Grams when I first saw them).

Nevertheless, I like your points, both in favor and against, and it seems that while I came down much harder on the film, we don't effectively disagree about the film. Thanks again!

cinema guy said...

Yes, Mr. Coleman, you are quite right to note 21 Grams and Amores Perros, which I would agree are stronger films than Babel. It seems like what they were aiming for was something along these lines and it most certainly did not hold up. We definitely agree on the film's ultimate lack of success, although I remain somewhat mystified by the "boring" label that seems to the consensus here. Perhaps, because I liked some aspects of the film, I held out hope longer than others and found myself enjoying the individual sections (that admittedly did not add up to a satisfying whole)...

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, it just seems like you found it more engaging in its parts than the majority here. There may be many explanations for that. I found a couple of the actors to be fairly fascinating, unto themselves--like that pair of older men overseeing the dumping of waste, etceteras. It just never coalesced itself as I would have liked. As such, I rather quickly lost interest in the film, and, to paraphrase my review, I truly only watched it in its entirety to be fair to it. So in that way, I supply that caveat--the film did not touch me much at all, even at the most superficial level, so everyone can take everything I write about it with a massive grain of salt. :)

Anonymous said...

Someone speaks the truth on the internet after all.

God what a boring ass movie this was.

Sweet essay.

createforumsfree said...

For your conclusion, you should give people a brief summary of your article. Make sure the last
paragraph is strong, and if you are selling a product or a service, use your sales skills to
persuade people to visit your website or make a purchase.
sexgyngecorporate video production