TERRY GROSS, host:
There's a new film just out in the theaters about organized crime in Italy. It's called "Gomorrah," and since it premiered at Cannes in May where it won the Grand Jury Prize, it's received enormous international acclaim, sweeping best picture, best director, best screenplay, best actor and best cinematography honors at the European Film Awards, the continent's version of the Oscars.
Our critic at large, John Powers, admires the film and says that it made him think hard about the different ways that movies portray gangsters.
Mr. JOHN POWERS (Film Critic, Vogue): Ever since prohibition, American movies have been in love with organized crime. Our pop culture not only finds gangsters is colorful and supremely quotable, bada bing, but it often flatters their thuggishness by endowing it with tragic grandeur. "The Godfather" made our life seemed honorable," said Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, adding that Francis Coppola's movie inspired him to kill even more people.
Of course, Americans can mythologize Don Corleone or Tony Soprano because for most of us, their activities feel safely distant. They exist as stories rather than living presences. But things are different in Italy, where everyone feels the reach of the mafia whose power touches everything from their trash pickups to the highest offices in the land. Because of such proximity, the best Italian stories about the Mafia - for instance, Leonardo Sciascia's brilliant novels about Sicily - are resolutely unromantic. They never get all sentimental about family.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the new Italian movie "Gomorrah." Directed by Matteo Garrone, this crime epic takes us into the world of the Camorra, a syndicate based in and around Naples that despite being little-known here is actually bigger than Sicily's Cosa Nostra.
Watching the Camorra in action, we see how organized crime can become every bit as crushing as a totalitarian government. Beginning with several murders, for the whole system runs on bloodshed, Garrone's film interweaves several stories. We follow a frightened a mob bagman, a 13-year-old kid who joins the Camorra, and a tailor who's teaching illegal Chinese workers the tricks of high-fashion couture.
The deadliest character is the most respectable, a sleek, silver-haired fixer who arranges for businesses to dump toxic wastes in fields where it poisons those living in the communities nearby. As we follow the action, we start to grasp the globalizing power of the Camorra, which deals in everything from trafficked humans to the designer clothes the movie shows Hollywood actresses wearing on the Red Carpet. More important, we get a harrowing sense of what it means to live under mob control.
The Camorra poisons everything it touches, and in parts of southern Italy, it touches everything. Shot on location, the world of "Gomorrah" is one of pervasive corruption, violence and fear, a world of harsh landscapes and dire housing projects that seem less a physical geography than a moral hell.
"Gomorrah" is based on a powerful book by an ambitious, young Neapolitan journalist named Roberto Saviano who saw his own father badly beaten because he called an ambulance for one of the mob's victims. Fueled by righteous anger, Saviano did undercover reporting on the docks at an illegal textile factory, and he even waited tables at Camorra weddings. The result was a passionate, highly personal expose whose visibility annoyed the mob's bosses, who are evidently not avuncular old fellows like Marlon Brando. These dons issued their version of a fatwa back in 2006, and three years later, Saviano, just 29 years old, is still living a life of bodyguards, armored cars and safe houses.
While Saviano's book burns hot, he's implicitly his story's crusading hero. Garrone's approach is cool, detached and almost anthropological. He knows that in a movie, Saviano's feverish style would make "Gomorrah" exciting in the wrong way, turn it into operatic melodrama or pulp fiction.
Featuring no heroes, Garrone's movie is pointedly anti-mythological, never more so than in its treatment of murder. "Gomorrah" is actually far less violent than "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas," but it seems more brutal for Garrone offers no cinematically cool deaths and nobody softens the blow with catchy lines about killing not being personal, only business.
Highly conscious of how it portrays the Mafia, Garone's film serves as a useful antidote for those of us who watch and love movies that transform murderers into mythic figures. One of its storylines follows two dumb punks, Marco and Ciro, who quote lines from "Scarface." The two run giddily wild, in hopes of living large, just like Al Pacino's Tony Montana.
I won't spoil things by saying what happens, but their story underscores one big difference between Garrone's movie and Hollywood gangster pics. Marco and Ciro watched "Scarface" and wanted to be him. Nobody who sees "Gomorrah" would ever want to be Marco or Ciro.
GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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