October 10, 2008

Harsh Reflection

FILMS OF THE WEEK GOMORRAH (15) Matteo Garrone (136 mins) **** STARRING Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchettino MIRRORS (15) Alexandre Aja (110 mins) * STARRING Kiefer Sutherland, Amy Smart, Paula Patton

Matteo Garrone's remarkable film Gomorrah is about a society living in fear. It is a Mafia movie, specifically the Neapolitan branch, the Camorra, yet it makes a decisive and courageous break from the traditions of the genre in revealing how very unglamorous life under the Mob can be. Don't expect sharp suits, killer bling, goodfella bonding or even a decent bolognese: the keynote here is rock-bottom realism, the setting a mournful concrete housing estate of a kind you can hardly believe exists in la bella Italia. And its characters are almost exclusively drawn from the lower echelons of the populace, be they Camorra thugs, volatile and uneducated youths on the make, or the mostly terrified locals whose aim isn't living so much as surviving.

Using his camera in a sidelong, unobtrusive way, Garrone presents a mosaic of social and civic corruption that couldn't be more damning. For a while we follow a lonely bagman who gives cash payments to the families of imprisoned Camorra foot soldiers; then it's a sweet-faced kid named Toto, who delivers groceries for his mum but senses bigger fish to fry when he's recruited by the drug- traffickers; two slightly older toerags find a cache of guns and go on a spree, believing they can beat the Camorra at their own game. Even the apparently innocent business of dressmaking can't escape the outfit's tentacular reach, as a tailor is savagely punished after he moonlights for Chinese rivals.

In the background, meanwhile, a gang war is simmering. We aren't enlightened on the details of it, just the blood-spattered endgames: the very first scene of the film has a bunch of minor mafiosi lazing about in a tanning parlour just before gunmen arrive and blow holes in them. The violence is so sudden that we barely have time to register what's happened, let alone why it's happened.

While its setting is local, the film's horizon is national. This is illustrated in another narrative strand involving a businessman who dumps toxic industrial waste - a growth industry in Naples - with no thought for the poisoning of the landscape. He takes on a young assistant, Roberto, who is initially beguiled by trips to Venice and Milan, but eventually baulks at the levels of cynicism he's required to tolerate. First, it's the insane farce of hiring children to drive lorry-loads of toxic effluent; then it's the neglect of an orchard, and his boss's casual disdain for the gift of peaches a little old lady has given them.

The hope is that noble souls like Roberto aren't alone in swimming against the tidal flow of Neapolitan vice, though the news emanating from Naples is hardly encouraging: the author of the book on which Gomorrah is based, another Roberto (Saviano), has been forced into hiding for fear of reprisal from the very mobsters he exposed. Their displeasure couldn't pay this film a more chilling compliment.

Let's immediately concede that the paranormal thriller Mirrors is not the worst in the long stream of American remakes of Asian ghost stories, if only because it would be heavy work to sit down and rank them in order. And while the money and production values behind the film are American, it should be noted that the director, Alexandre Aja, and his co-screenwriter, Gregory Levasseur, are both French, and most of the filming was done in Bucharest. Well, I suppose it makes a change from the Isle of Man.

By far the spookiest thing about it is the main location, a burned-out Art Deco department store that's been neglected and unrepaired for years because of an unsettled lawsuit. After the mysterious suicide of its nightwatchman, a disgraced cop, Ben Carson (Kiefer Sutherland), takes up the job, wandering around its carbonised shell and wondering why its huge floor-to-ceiling mirrors are so finely preserved - they're the only things in the building that haven't succumbed to fire damage.

Ben is a troubled, angry type, suspended from the force after accidentally killing a colleague and now self-medicating to help himself through it. His wife (Paula Patton) is keeping him away from their kids, and has a further reason to suspect his mental state: the violent hallucinations he's been experiencing cause him to burst into the family home and frantically cover all the reflecting surfaces in green paint (Farrow & Ball, by the look, but it still seems unreasonable).

In the early stages, these looking-glass visions are slightly upsetting. After all, no one wants to gaze in a mirror and find a distorted Francis Bacon-style head reflected back at them. But instead of exploring the eerie nooks and crannies of the department store for clues, the film decides to branch out and have the demonic forces behind the mirror invade people's bathrooms, sending our hero on a cross-country mission, first to a broken-down farm, then to a remote convent. The haunted-house mystery is dissipated by degrees, and the screenplay (perhaps losing something in translation) keeps stumbling into farce. When one of the mirror victims has her jaw ripped in half while in the bathtub, the crime-scene police officer warns Ben before entering: "It's not good". No kidding. Later, when Ben finds himself up against it, he holds an old lady at gunpoint and snarls, "Don't make me threaten you!".

Has Sutherland become so possessed by the spirit of Jack Bauer that holding a gun on a defenceless female - a nun, at that - is now second nature to him? It's pretty much the opposite of heroic behaviour, even if he does believe the woman to be a schizoid avenger equipped with destructive telekinetic powers. Perhaps he should take a break and do a romantic comedy for a change. All this high intensity seems to be getting to him.

Originally published by Reviews by Anthony Quinn.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.