Hobbesian Hell

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The Camorra is a crime syndicate, based in Naples, that has been around since the 18th century – making it one of the oldest such organizations in Italy. Comprising about 150 “clans,” with perhaps 7,000 hardcore members and many times more people associated with it in varying degrees, the Camorra makes its money the old-fashioned way: through drugs, extortion, gambling, prostitution, “protection,” and general racketeering. It then uses the proceeds to gain control of legitimate enterprises. For example, it now controls the milk, fish, and coffee trade in the area, as well as thousands of bakeries. Recently it has discovered a new racket: the illicit disposal of toxic waste.

Directed by Matteo Garrone, “Gomorra” is a gritty, realistic movie about the Camorra’s effect upon Neapolitan society, based on a book by Roberto Saviano. The title cleverly plays on the similarity of the organization’s name to that of the biblical Gomorrah, one of two cities (the other was Sodom) where corruption had become so pervasive that God removed the few good people and then utterly destroyed the rest.

For fans of American gangster flicks, this film will be jarring. In the “Godfather” series and a hundred clones thereof, gangsters are often portrayed as sympathetic family men, with the leads almost always played by handsome, charismatic actors. The mobsters in this film are portrayed as brutish, nasty mutts – which is altogether more realistic, in my view.

To cite one instance: in the opening scene, we see several gangsters in a tanning salon, laughing and strutting in their Speedos, shortly before being assassinated by rival mobsters. The scene is portrayed convincingly, to say the least.

The movie weaves together five interacting stories of people affected by the Camorra. The first story is of two punks, Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), who dream of making it big as gangsters. They can recite lines from “Scarface” by heart and act out scenes. When the boys spot some Camorra men stashing stolen guns, they steal some for themselves, eventually using them to hold up a casino. As the story develops we see how these enterprising young men are treated by the mob.

Then there is the story of Franco (Tony Servillo) and Roberto (Carmine Paternoster). Franco is teaching Roberto the toxic waste business. To cut costs and increase profits, the Camorra businessmen mix highly dangerous industrial waste with ordinary garbage, or surreptitiously bury it in abandoned mines. This pollutes the groundwater and poisons people. In one fascinating scene, a drum breaks open at one of the mines and the contents spill on a driver, who is severely burned. When Franco refuses to send for an ambulance, the other drivers refuse to drive the trucks, so he replaces them – with local boys! Roberto is ambivalent about this “trade,” and we learn how he deals with the conflict.

The third story tells of Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a 13-year-old delivery boy who worms his way into the good graces of a gang of dope dealers by returning a gun to them, and some drugs that they ditched. He is initiated into the gang by being shot while wearing a bulletproof vest, and there is a nice scene of him admiring the resulting welt as though it were a badge of courage. The eventual role he is called upon to play is something he never anticipates. The fourth story is about a minor player in the organization, Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), who gets caught up in a violent clan schism. His story is the least compelling, since it has no clear resolution. But the fifth story is fascinating. In it, a fashion-design tailor, Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), decides to take the job of training Chinese immigrant garment workers at night. One problem, though: the Chinese are up against clothing manufacturers who are controlled or protected by the Camorra. The outcome is melancholy.

Though I have never seen these actors before, I found them excellent across the board. Especially compelling were Salvatore Cantalupo as the hapless tailor and Carmine Paternoster as the conflicted Roberto.

The cinematography is extremely effective, conveying a bleak, urban underclass world of dreary poverty. This film is not likely to increase tourism to Naples. But it is refreshing that this film does not suggest, as so many do, that everyone in Italy is a member of the mob. Most Neapolitans try to live their lives productively in spite of the Camorra, not because of it.

I recommend this movie especially to people of an anarchistic bent, who believe that a world without government would be a paradise. I view these folk as “mirror Marxists,” since Marxists believe that a world totally controlled by government would be a paradise. Garrone’s Gomorra suggests that an anarchistic setting, in which stable law enforcement doesn’t exist, would result in a Hobbesian hell, with gangs fighting internecine mini-wars with rival gangs and making normal, productive life impossible for everyone else. Watching “Gomorra,” you get the feeling that having a few Untouchables on hand wouldn’t hurt.

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