Saturday, February 14, 2009

All Grime, No Glamour

by Chuck Williamson

While it did not “reinvent the wheel” of contemporary gangster cinema, Brian DePalma’s Scarface nonetheless underlined in thick, bold strokes the genre’s internal frictions and contradictions. Scarface amplified the genre’s basest elements, reimagining its narrative as a sensationalistic, overstuffed, Grand Guignol cartoon that forced audiences to confront, up front and personal, the paradox implicit within all mob movies: the glamorization of the gangster. Because of its lack of nuance and subtlety, DePalma’s film made those once inconspicuous contradictions more explicit. Scarface, like most gangster films, turned its antagonist into an icon of cool, a two-fisted merchant of death with both charisma and cojones—and no amount of anti-crime moralizing could cancel out the intrinsic allure of such a character. For all the bullet wounds and moralizing of its “crime doesn’t pay” third act, the film largely functions as a male adolescent fantasy, a fever dream concoction where decadent materialism is rewarded, macho posturing leads to steamy sex (with nudity!), enemies are mowed down in satisfying spurts of splatter-gore, and men speak in expletive-laced bon mots like, “This town is a great big pussy just waiting to get fucked.”

Loaded with both implicit and explicit references to Scarface, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra reappropriates the pop-culture image of gangster cool and makes visible its seams, cracks, and inherent hollowness.

In its most memorable scene, two skinny, anemic-looking teenagers—Marco and Ciro—strip down to their underwear, stroll through a riverbank, and crudely reenact Scarface’s final shoot-out sequence with a pair of stolen semi-automatic weapons. “You sounded just like Tony Montana,” one says to the other, but nothing could be further from the truth. Using Scarface as a “how-to” manual, these two boys may have memorized the film’s macho swagger and f-bomb sloganeering, but their ritual still comes across as a children’s game, a media-constructed façade that fails to mask the authentic image of two vulnerable, naked youths. They are pathetic, juvenile, a pair of children pretending to be big, bad gangsters—and despite their reprehensibility, they remain somewhat sympathetic, as they have bought into the false constructs of Hollywood and will, of course, pay the consequences. While the scene could be described as both self-reflexive and revisionist, it also carries an undercurrent of tragedy, as their inevitable (and bloody) downfall seems designed right from the first pull of a trigger. Based on Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction expose, Gomorra does an excellent job of balancing genre revisionism with fatalistic tragedy, countering and critiquing the slick commercial sheen of Hollywood gangsters while also providing a forceful, visceral cinematic experience.

Set within the seedy, semi-decayed Neapolitan slums, Gomorra tells five interrelated stories that map out the Camorra’s cancer-like proliferation and its far-reaching power. In narratives that intertwine only through their shared milieu—the atrophied streets, corroded slums, and hollowed-out buildings of Naples—Gomorra follows Don Ciro (Gianfelece Imparato), a lower-tier mob courier forced into the middle of a violent feud; Tito (Salvatore Albruzze), a 13-year old delivery boy drawn into the lower rungs of organized crime; Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor who takes a night job training Chinese garment workers how to make couture knock-offs; Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), an ambitious college graduate who gets caught up in an illegal, mob-funded waste management scandal; and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) and Marco (Marco Macor), a pair of boorish, numbskull hoods trying to make a name for themselves amongst high-ranking Camorra.

Rather than linger within the upper echelon of the Camorra’s oligarchic structure, Gomorra fixes its lens on those powerless individuals within the periphery of mob influence—those who are, inexorably, drawn into its malignant center. By focusing on the margins rather than the center, the film redirects away from internal mob politics, and instead concentrates on those individuals trapped within the cycle of cruelty, capital, and corruption. A sense of fatalism hangs over each story, and the guns-and-glamour motif implicitly expected from most mob films is exchanged for the tactile dread and paranoia experienced by those in the lower depths. Only small narrative snippets clarify—or even explain—the intricate frictions, divisions, and feuds within the Camorra. Instead, the film dives headfirst into the slums, street corners, and strip-clubs, following those within the economic and social fringe who are caught within the crossfire. Such an approach purges whatever romanticism, sensationalism or grandeur that could have existed within such a film, leaving in its place a paranoiac, near-suffocating sense of realism.

This realism, of course, leads to scenes that might seem dissonant or strange within standard gangster fodder. When Don Ciro tries on a bullet-proof vest for the first time, he looks at himself in the mirror with an expression of doubt and vulnerability—a clear sign that he fears a second assault. During Marco and Ciro’s late-night escapees, their unsuccessful (and hilariously awkward) attempts to get laid lead to a brutal thrashing that leaves them humiliated and emasculated. Tito’s transformation from innocent bystander to cold-blooded accomplice avoids the crass “child-killer” sensationalism a lesser film might have aimed for. Even its most violent sequences come in short, disorienting machine-gun bursts that dissatisfy on a visceral level, lingering less on bullet-holes and blood-splatters and more on the responses and consequences that come from such bloodshed. Garrone’s direction plays a pivotal role in making all of these sequences work. Filled with hand-held photography and on-location shooting—imagine the Dardennes but with an added dash of grime and gore—the film represents a brilliant meshing of form and content, where its journalistic, verite-style cinematography strips away the layers of cinematic artifice that might have occluded our vision and blinded us with the flimsy romanticism of other pictures.

While this approach has its obvious rewards, the film’s near-elliptical shorthand does, at times, come across as disorienting and impossible to navigate. On occasion, the film forces us to sort through a narratalogical tangle full of splintering plot threads, labyrinthine back-stories, and unresolved character arcs. The first thirty minutes, in particular, are chaotically organized, foregoing narrative coherence for a fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude that works on an aesthetic level but unwinds with a detached, staccato rhythm. Other times, the film comes close to becoming a polemical op/ed piece, as it will on occasion trade in the subtle intricacies of its narrative for broader, more on-the-nose observations (sections of Roberto’s narrative sag a bit because of this).

But these minor gripes do not detract from the film’s lasting impact. Gomorra succeeds as both a rehabilitation of the gangster film and a powerful expose of mob corruption. Amounting to far more than an experiment in genre, Garrone’s film gives us a sobering, terrifying vision of crime and corruption that has, as its biblical title suggests, damned an entire city with the stain of its sins.


Joel Bocko said...

I have not seen Gamorra, and have thusly avoided the bulk of your review. But I read your first paragraph and you nailed it.

Damn, I love Scarface. It's smart but it's gleefully vulgar too and it's one of my favorite movies of all time.

Anonymous said...

I'll go ahead and say that you nailed the rest as well, Chuck.

For those fortunate enough to be in NYC, I'm pretty sure that BAM is still doing a Matteo Garrone restrospective with a ton of his work. Only two of his other films are available on Netflix, so check out the retro if you get the chance.

Chuck W said...

Thanks, guys. :)

MovieMan0283 - Like most DePalma films, SCARFACE goes far beyond the realms of good taste and acceptable cinematic decorum -- and it's an absolute blast from start to finish. I'm just glad I had an opportunity to quote my favorite line of dialogue from that film.

Jacob - Thanks for bringing up the Garrone retrospective. Admittedly, I haven't seen any of his other films, but plan on filling in the gaps whenever I have a chance. Shame it'll be through Netflix and not the NYC thing.

Joel Bocko said...

Chuck, have you seen the special features on the 2003 DVD release? There's one which documents the changes made to Scarface's dialogue when it was aired on TV. My favorite transition is to the line you quoted, which becomes "This town's like a great big chicken, just waitin' to get plucked!"

Anonymous said...

I love network censors! My favorite: "Yippy-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon!" As if Die Hard wasn't cool enough before...

If I could stomach the '83 Scarface, I'm sure I'd have a blast with the edited version.

Chuck W said...

Don't worry, Jacob. Someone has compiled a greatest hits collection on YouTube. Check it out:

You're right, MovieMan. Absolutely hysterical.

Plus: I never knew you could get a scar from eating pineapple.

Chuck W said...

Oh, also the original DVD special feature:

w. said...

the opening shoot out in the tanning salon has become one of my recent favorite movie openings.