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.