October 8, 2008
The Mob at the Movies
By Geoffrey Macnab
As a Mafia war rages on the streets of southern Italy, a brave new film lays bare the grim reality of 'La Cosa Nostra'. By Geoffrey MacnabHow do you portray the Mob as it really is? It's a challenge that has tested film-makers since the earliest days of the silent movie era. Gangster movies have been made for going on 100 years now; the director Martin Scorsese cites DW Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) and Raoul Walsh's The Regeneration as the first forays into the genre, but others look back even further.
Directors today face the same dilemma - that the very act of putting mobsters on screen risks glamorising them and encouraging audiences to identify with their stories.
The Italian director Matteo Garrone's Cannes Grand Prix winner Gomorrah is the latest film to attempt to buck a century-old trend. Over the credits, Garrone shares some startling statistics about Italian organised crime, and the Camorra in particular. In 30 years, the Camorra (whose stronghold is in the Campania region in southern Italy) has murdered 4,000 people, "more than any other criminal organisation or terrorist group... more people than the IRA, ETA and Islamic terrorist groups, more than Cosa Nostra."
Alongside this ferocious bloodletting, the Camorra has diversified into every business imaginable. The organisation has profits estimated at more than $230bn (about 130bn) a year. It bought shares in the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre site in New York. One of its most lucrative sidelines is the garbage disposal business. This year, newspapers in Italy have been full of stories about the heaps of rotting, toxic rubbish on the streets of Naples - a situation that the Camorra's activities largely helped to engineer.
Mobster movies don't generally do due diligence on the worlds they portray. Film-makers aren't much interested in tax evasion (although it did bring down Al Capone), corrupt construction deals, waste management or dirty dealing in the garment trade. These, though, were precisely the subjects that most interested author Roberto Saviano, whose book Gomorrah was the basis of Garrone's film. Now, Saviano is public enemy number one for the Camorra. His book may have sold more than 1.2 million copies in Italy and been translated into 33 languages, but in his home town, Naples, the author is persona non grata. He lives in hiding and has a police escort wherever he goes.
By contrast, Garrone's film appears to have been well received by the mobsters whose thuggery it highlights. "The risk was taken by Saviano," Garrone tells me. "The film takes a different direction from the book. It is not a journalistic denunciation. There wasn't that much hostility from the Camorra when we were filming. It was the other way round. I really had the feeling that they wanted to participate in the project. These people obviously have a great fascination with cinema!"
Garrone's remarks highlight one of the great ironies about the transforming power of movie-making. Somehow, gangster pictures have a patina of glamour, however hard film-makers try to scrape it off. Meanwhile, real-life gangsters have all seen The Godfather and Brian De Palma's Scarface and tailor their behaviour accordingly. When Garrone tries to show them as they are, reality is elusive: the gangsters still seem as if they're on leave from a Scorsese film.
In one scene early in Gomorrah, Marco and Ciro - two delinquents who dream of being big-time gangsters - steal guns from the Camorra. They treat the weapons as if they're toys or film props, letting rip with machine guns and rocket launchers for the sheer pleasure of it. Earlier, we've seen them giving their Tony Montana impersonations, recreating Al Pacino's demise in Scarface. On the one hand, their behaviour is pathetic and immature. On the other, it is exhilarating.
The Italian audiences who flocked to see Gomorrah in the summer aren't going because they want at last to see a truthful expose of organised crime in Naples - they've been drawn by the intensity of the film-making. This is precisely the problem the gangster genre always faces; the films are celebrations of action and danger, not sociological dramas.
Garrone claims that when he was making Gomorrah, he was looking more to the example of Italian neorealist movies like Roberto Rossellini's Paisa and Rome, Open City than to the world of Scarface, Little Caesar and Goodfellas. His film, which comprises five different stories, was shot in the Camorra's backyard, using mainly non-professional actors. There is no commentary; this is not one of those cliched yarns in which a detective or journalist infiltrates the Mob. The storytelling is matter-of-fact.
"When you get there [to Naples] and see life from the inside, it is not easy to understand where is evil and where is good. There is a grey zone in the middle," the director says of a society in which everybody from housewives to politicians, street kids and elderly tailors is ensnared by the Camorra. "I wanted to make the spectator feel that he was there, with these people."
Gomorrah succeeds in offering a sweaty, street-eye view of organised crime in the region. Garrone shows how ordinary life is going on (couples are getting married, kids are playing football, teenagers are courting) at exactly the same time as informers are shot and rival gangs vie for supremacy. Old patriarchs with croaky voices attend to assassinations in the same bluntly methodical way they do to their bookkeeping. When there's a knock at the door, characters here don't know whether it's the postman or killers.
This is a virtuoso piece of film-making, but the sheer vibrancy of the storytelling gets in the way of any message Garrone might want to impart. Other Italian film-makers have had similar problems. In 1985, Giuseppe Tornatore made The Professor, based on the life of Camorra boss Raffaele Cutolo. He elicited an intelligent, complex performance from Ben Gazzara as the Mob boss who controls his empire from behind prison walls. Like Garrone, Tornatore tries to show the inner workings of organised crime in Naples, but audiences still approached The Professor as a thriller.
It was the same with Scorsese's masterpiece Goodfellas (1990), a film that went to extraordinary lengths to unravel the inner workings of the Mob but somehow only added to its mystique. The mobsters may dress garishly, be married to women with "bad skin and too much make-up" and perpetrate acts of repulsive violence, but they retain a certain glamour. They're not nobodies.
Gomorrah boasts no heroes. There isn't a character here like Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas, who is part of the world of organised crime but is able to detach himself from it and observe its idiosyncrasies.
When Garrone claims that making the film was akin to being thrust into "a war situation" and expresses disbelief that such a world could exist only a few hundred kilometres from his home in Rome, you don't doubt his sincerity. His film shows aspects of life in the Neapolitan suburbs that will startle international audiences. Brutality becomes normalised. Boyhood friends in different gangs are ready to kill one another. Even respect for family is forgotten. Huge wealth may have been generated by the Camorra but little trickles down to the foot soldiers. So far, so grim.
Gomorrah shows aspects of organised crime that other mobster movies neglect. Its characters are vicious, immature and irresponsible. Even so, as Scorsese said of the original Howard Hawks Scarface (1932), "the gangster world was almost attractive because of its irresponsibility".
'Gomorrah' is released in the UK on Friday
Four films that showed it for real
'The Phenix City Story' (1955)
Phil Karlson's celebrated B-movie is set in an Alabama town that used to be known as the "Sodom of the South". The director uses documentary techniques to emphasise just how corrupt Phenix City used to be. In the 1950s, Phenix City was dubbed "the wickedest city in the United States".
Martin Scorsese's film (pictured) was based on 'Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family', a book by Nicholas Pileggi. It told the story of a minor mobster called Henry Hill who shopped his former associates to the authorities. Hill didn't just share his inside knowledge about the crimes committed by the Mafia; he also revealed how they dressed, what they talked about and how they spent their Friday nights.
'The Professor' (1986)
A few years before his big hit 'Cinema Paradiso', Guiseppe Tornatore made this thriller about a thoughtful gangster (Ben Gazarra) who patiently builds his criminal empire from behind bars. It was based loosely on the life of a real Camorra boss.
'Rise of the Footsoldier' (2007)
Critics weren't kind to Julian Gilbey's gangster thriller, but the film at least tried to portray the world of some would-be English Goodfellas in its full violence and self-destructiveness.
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