Thursday, February 12, 2009

GOMORRAH & the Social Contract in Italy

"What the people of Italy believe in is anarchy. Deep down, we are all anarchists."

When, in early 2008, I interviewed Daniele Luchetti, director and co-adapter of My Brother Is an Only Child, for GreenCine, the above quote came from his comments on Italy, Italians and their politics -- particularly regarding the illegal dumping of toxic waste in the south of the country. The shocking documentary Biùtiful cauntri, that shows the results of this dumping, was in circulation back then and Luchetti's words were directed at how something as dreadful as this could be happening today in an ostensibly "modern"Western society. (Also on view around this time was Enrico Caria's documentary from one year earlier, Vedi Napoli e poi muori (See Naples and Die), which covered some of the same territory.)

Matteo Garrone's GOMORRAH, which took home Cannes' grand prize for 2008 and won a slew of European Film Awards, offers us a look at this -- and much more -- from other angles, underscoring the idea of anarchy resplendent and nearly complete. It's not a pretty sight, and although the film has been honored up, down and sideways across the world, especially by many critics here in the USA, and though it was submitted by Italy as that country's choice for Best Foreign Film, no one should be surprised that it was overlooked completely by the Motion Picture Academy for any of the top five slots (it didn't even make the nine-count short list). Gomorrah offers no hope, and hope, as we should know by now, is a requirement of the Academy.

Gomorrah, in fact, would seem to indicate the decline and fall of the Social Contract in Italy. Now, I've read a little Locke and Rousseau (the latter in translation), Hume, Kant, Dworkin (in this case Ronald, rather than Andrea) and Rawls, but I can't claim to be a Social Contract scholar. Yet I find the concept of the Social Contract as important as any other for our time -- for all time -- because it involves everything from justice to duty, what your government owes you and you owe your government, patriotism, loyalty, common decency and more.

When I look at something like the New York City MTA (which I look at regularly, riding it as often as I do), I see the Social Contract in practice, up close. Despite all that could go wrong (and sometimes does, but thank happenstance, only in degrees), the subway and bus system works! We citizens trust that it will serve us, and so we behave: waiting in the cold, crowding into cars, putting up with others' bad behavior (farts, gropes, body odors, screaming Jesus-freak preachers) because of our trust in this Contract. Our own personal histories with the MTA tell us that it will continue to get us where we need to go, so we pay our fare. When MTA workers go on strike, as rarely happens, this contact is frayed badly but quickly bounces back. The current thrust by the MTA for a large fare increase coupled to major service cuts seems to me another bad fray from which it will be difficult for the Contract to recover (particularly regarding the ever-embattled poor and working class). We shall see.

I don't know how well the subway system is working in major Italian cities, but much else in the country, particularly the southern section, seems to be faling apart. All the venality, lawbreaking, deliberate deregulation and outright incompetence of our own recently departed Bush II Administration did not foist upon our soil what the combination of the venal and corrupt Berlusconi administration, together with local politicians and the crime "syndicate" known as the Gomorrah, has visited upon the Italians: the illegal dumping of toxic waste that has, for literally decades, caused land, water, food, livestock and human life to be lost. How did the Italians manage to elect this "President" for a fourth term (interrupted by short and not terribly competent interloping administrations)? Did they feel that crypto-fascism was a safer bet than muddled democracy? Mussolini may have made (some) Italian trains run on time, but Berlusconi has colluded in poisoning his people.

And speaking of poison, let's get back to Gomorrah, in which life, for most of its protagonists, is so bad-and-growing-worse that it's little wonder near-anarchy reigns. When hit men understand neither whom they are supposed to kill nor why -- and then kill anyway -- what else but anarchy could you call this? Beginning in a what looks like a kind of sleazy/swank tanning/massage parlor at which certain clients get something more than the expected tan, the movie moves to an ugly, run-down housing project in which we get to know several of the inhabitants, as well as the bag man who delivers their payoffs (he's played by Gianfelice Imparato, shown center in the first of the photos, above). Cut to a late-teen twosome that imagines itself some sort of "glamorous outlaw." When these two discover a cache of weapons, stupidity runs rampant. We also meet a seemingly gracious and intelligent fellow (Toni Servillo, in photo at bottom) and his new assistant who act as middle men between the mob and its corporate clients for the illegal dumping of the latter's toxic waste. Finally, there's a smart and talented couturier character, who serves his venal boss by producing in quantity the gowns of noted designers and is now approached by competing Chinese who would like him to moonlight for them.

All these characters and their stories are linked by theme, even if they do not officially cross paths. Director Garrone (right) also co-wrote the screenplay with five other writers, including investigative reporter Roberto Saviano, author of the best-selling book about the Gomorrah on which this film is based, who himself has been in hiding from the mob and under police protection. Garrone films in a swift, harsh documentary style in which things, mostly awful, happen so fast that neither characters nor viewers have time to do more than react and duck. Any extended thought must be held for post-viewing. This gives the film an on-the-spot immediacy that is often shocking and vital. But because we rarely see quiet moments in which characters reflect or communicate about something other than an immediate problem (perhaps they never do?), we begin to long for some basic human characteristics we can hold on to. Most of these comes via the dressmaker, played so well by Salvatore Cantalupo (below, right, with cigarette), who ends up in a different line of work, having a memorable moment with Scarlett Johansson and a dress.

On the surface, choosing Garrone to direct this multiple-tales movie seemed to me an odd choice, given his earlier work like The Embalmer and First Love, both of which deal with obsessive individuals with severely antisocial needs. Yet maybe not. The first of these two films details the plight of a deformed older man in unrequited love with his younger, gorgeous assistant. In the latter film, a sadist finds a willing masochistic partner for his creepy obsession. Now, with Gomorrah, Garrone has widened his canvas from unhealthy individuals to an entire unhealthy society -- in which there is no apparent social contract remaining. What one set of people brings another is invariably despoiling, with the government -- politicians, police -- simply standing aside to observe (or perhaps help with) the destruction.

How different is all this from the two films made during the last decade by Giuseppe Piccione: Not of This World and Light of My Eyes. In the former, the Social Contract is in full view, working haltingly perhaps, but finally succeeding. A nun discovers an abandoned infant in the park, and from this, the whole of modern urban Italy comes alive, as Church, family, friends, workers, police, everyone concerned play their part in making things work. In the latter film, the Contract is less obvious but still on view. Even the criminal kingpin, wonderfully played by the great Silvio Orlando, has his own sense of honor and justice.

Italy and Italian film have had a checkered history with the Contract. Which is why Italian films that cover their country's history can be so alarming, fascinating and full of life. From the post-war neorealists like Rossellini (well, in that period of his career, at least) to Bertolucci's The Conformist and 1900 and the more recent works such as the Giordana/Petraglia/Rulli TV-into-movie The Best of Youth and Luchetti's popular My Brother Is an Only Child, these history movies have the benefit of letting us see how the Social Contract changes from decade to decade and from one political administration to another. We also can see how impulses, fascistic to anarchistic (Black Shirts to Red Guards) rear their ugly heads from time to time.

Another very fine and woefully under-seen Italian film -- it tracks the disintegration of the Social Contract in the Italy of five years ago, and how, when faced with some of the sleazier aspects of this disintegration (the collusion of the medical profession is probably the most shocking), its "heroes" actually do something to stop it -- is Stefano Reali's Verso Nord (released on DVD in the US as Without Conscience). Interestingly, this film stars one of the leads in Garrone's The Embalmer, Valerio Foglia Manzillo, who may be the best-looking actor to come out of Italy in a generation or more and who gives, in this film, an even better performance than he did in The Embalmer. Verso Nord is such a surprising piece of work -- fast-paced, funny, off-center and finally almost operatic -- that its remaining unknown on these shores seems faintly ridiculous.

Recent Italian films have been cataloging the demise of the Contract -- none perhaps better than the audacious and skillful Valzer by Salavtore Maira (still unreleased in the USA, by the way. What is wrong here?), as well as the still-unreleased on our shores Il Divo (update note: Il Divo now has a distributor: Music Box Films/MPI Media Group) and Il Caimano. Nothing, however, has as yet had quite the impact of Gomorrah. This is the not the kind of film you can recommend to people who detest violence and downer movies (not to mention subtitles) or have trouble following multi-strand plots. And I do agree with David Edelstein in New York Magazine, who claims the film is better journalism than it is art. Yet movie journalism this good -- immediate and timely -- is nothing to sneeze at. And the film's final image is simply amazing, a kind of riff on the deus ex machina in which the machina itself arrives to offer up a strange, sad, wasted gift to the deus. It's an image Pasolini would have creamed over.

Gomorrah begins its limited release theatrical run on Friday the 13th (consider it a kind of "fright" film for the intelligentsia), where it will play in NYC at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. Eventually, I'm sure, you'll be able to see it on DVD and/or VOD.

Not coincidentally BAMcinématek is offering sneak preview screening of Gomorrah this evening (Thursday, 2/12) at 7pm (sold out, of course) and over the next six days will present its program The Films of Matteo Garrone through February 17. The retrospective of this (suddenly) acclaimed Italian director will also include showings of

First Love (Primo Amore) (2004), 100min
With Vitaliano Trevisan, Michela Cescon

Roman Summer (Estate romana) (2000), 90min
With Salvatore Sansone, Rossella Or, Monica Nappo

The Embalmer (L'Imbalsamatore) (2002), 101min
With Ernesto Mahieux, Valerio Foglia Manzillo, Elisabetta Rocchetti

Guests (Ospiti) (1998), 78min
With Julian Sota, Llazar Sota
Preceded by Oreste Pipolo, Wedding Photographer (Oreste Pipolo, fotografo di matrimoni) (1998), 53min With Oreste Pipolo

and Middle Land (Terra di mezzo) (1996), 80min.

BAM Rose Cinemas (30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn, NY)
Tickets: $11 per screening for adults; $8 for seniors 65 and over,
children under twelve, and $8 for students 25 and under with valid I.D.
Monday–Thursday, except holidays; $7 BAM Cinema Club members
Tickets available by phone at 718.777.FILM
Call 718.636.4100 or visit

Credit for all photos above from the film GOMORRAH: Mario Spada

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