When the mob boss Paul Vario died of lung failure at age 73 in 1988, the New York Times obituary allowed for some ambiguity when it came to what, exactly, the 6-foot-tall, 250-pound Brooklynite had done for a living. If you took Vario's word for it, he was a florist. If you went by the accounts of law-enforcement agents and the author Nicholas Pileggi, who wrote about Vario in Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, Vario's CV included loan sharking, bookmaking, hijacking, rape, burglary, and racketeering. He died while serving a 10-year sentence for extorting money from airfreight companies at John F. Kennedy Airport.
The obituary lays out the details of Vario's criminal life in hedged language. The terms reportedly and reputed to combine with the headline—"Paul Vario, 73; Called a Leader of Crime Group"—to create an aura of ultimate, ominous unknowability around the man. This aura is only compounded by the Times' rock-hard assertion that Vario had been "in and out of jail since 1921," which goes from impressive to impossible when you do the math: In 1921, Vario was just 6 years old. Mafia heavies like to maintain thick cloud cover, and you get the feeling Vario might have enjoyed his obfuscating obit: Even in death, he hadn't been pinned down.
The Times obituary isn't the only work to have cast a spell of mystery around Vario. In 1990's Goodfellas, written by Pileggi and directed by Martin Scorsese, Paul Vario became Paulie Cicero, the film's cabstand-headquartered East New York capo. Played by Paul Sorvino, Paulie is a portly paterfamilias whose vast capacity for cruelty is alluded to but kept off-screen—when we see him, he's cooking up Italian sausages and treating underlings with a stern benevolence. That the real-life Cicero was once jailed for rape is among the details that Scorsese and Pileggi chose to spare the fictional Paulie, and the omission gets to the heart of a discomfort that has attached to mobster movies since the earliest days of the genre: The nagging sense that we are being told, at best, a romanticized partial truth and, at worst, a recklessly glamorized lie.
Late last month, Criterion released a two-disc DVD of Gomorrah, an Italian gangster film directed by Matteo Garrone (Scorsese, a fan, lent his imprimatur to a "presented by" credit). Upon its 2008 festival-circuit debut, Gomorrahwas heralded as a harsh corrective to what you might call the mob-movie problem. GQ's Tom Carson called it the "anti-Godfather," and the Times' A.O. Scott praised it as "something of a rebuke to fans of The Sopranos and the countless other television programs, movies and books that traffic in the mythology of organized crime."
The thinking goes like this: No matter how bleakly mob movies end, they are invariably intoxicating. (What is Goodfellas' famous Copacabana tracking shot if not a virtuoso dance of seduction, tugging us tipsily through the warm belly of underworld privilege?) Gomorrah, by contrast, is great precisely because it's repulsive. The film, about the Neapolitan organized-crime syndicate the Camorra, starts with the gruesome slaughter of some half-naked thugs in the sickly blue light of a tanning salon; it reaches a quietly nauseating crescendo with a shot of rotting peaches grown from mob-polluted soil; and it ends with the image of a bulldozer indifferently scooping up the corpses of two freshly murdered youths and hoisting them to the sky like a sacrifice. A two-hour-plus stranglehold, the movie sends us back into the world gasping.
Gomorrah is a deeply moralizing film, brooking no ethical ambiguity or mitigating factors in its hellish vision of organized crime. But Garrone is smart about his moralizing. He curates the film's ample stock of outrages with a cool head, dry eyes, and a steady hand. The source material, a best-selling book by the investigative journalist Roberto Saviano, is so potent that Garrone needs only stage, frame, and edit it for maximum impact, then step out of its way.
It's impossible to avoid comparing Gomorrah to the iconic gangster movies that have preceded it, and the film itself makes one explicit comparison early on, when two of its younger characters playact a shootout from Brian DePalma's Scarface with real handguns. "The world is ours!" they shout. "I'm Tony Montana!" But how does the film really relate to genre staples like Scarface, Goodfellas, and The Godfather? Is it more honest? Less sentimental? More authentic? And if we agree on what these shaky terms mean and decide that Gomorrahdeserves them, is that the same as saying it's better?
The short answer to that last question is: of course not. (A two-hour movie that consisted only of graphically depicted mafia executions would be at once honest, unsentimental, authentic, and unwatchable.) But one doesn't need to argue that Gomorrah is superior to The Godfather (it isn't), or that it's the best mob movie of the decade (it is) to make the case that Garrone's film boasts a different power than Francis Ford Coppola's. With The Godfather trilogy, Coppola worked brilliantly off of a pre-existing dramatic blueprint: It was a rise-and-fall gangland epic with roots extending back not just to Howard Hawks' Scarface and the Edward G. Robinson vehicle Little Caesar, but (as the latter film's title suggests) to Shakespearean tragedy. Today, that blueprint has been worn bare from excessive handling and, with Gomorrah, Garrone and his screenwriters tore it up.
Gomorrah upends three major gangster-movie conventions. For starters, the film isn't about one person. This seemingly mundane choice is crucial to Gomorrah's innovation and radical in the context of the genre at large—from White Heat to Al Pacino's underworld oeuvre to American Gangster, most films about organized crime focus on the criminal, not the organization. Even in a family drama like The Godfather, the fates of Fredo, Sonny, and Vito matter mostly to the degree that they affect Michael—the murder of his daughter in the third film is more something done to him than something done to her. In these films, the world of organized crime, no matter how vividly it's evoked, functions chiefly as a way to dramatize one man's life: the choices he makes, the temptations he faces, the fatal flaw that proves his undoing.
Gomorrah doesn't narrate the journey of one man's soul. It tells the story of a system that checks souls at the gate. The screenplay consists of five nonintersecting threads, less important for the people who inhabit them than for what their circumstances reveal about the Camorra. The story of a clothing factory's head tailor illustrates the Camorra's involvement in Italian high fashion (and, at one surreal moment, in Scarlett Johansson's wardrobe); the story of a newly indoctrinated adolescent drug mule is more about the Camorra's ruthless recruitment policies and hazing rituals than the boy's personal struggles. We care for these characters, but Garrone's desire to sweep us up in their hopes for redemption and their trespasses into sin remains secondary to his broader indictment of the cesspool they splash around in.
The second convention the movie flouts is the standard gangster-movie rise-and-fall geometry. Unlike so many films before it, Gomorrah traces no tragic parabola. The plot doesn't arc so much as accumulate; there are no highs, just lows. The film shuffles between the Camorra's bottommost rungs, ditching bodyguard-lined swimming pools for a corroded apartment complex full of downbeat foot soldiers, local bosses in cheap athletic wear, and other assorted nobodies. (Gomorrah's forebear in its downward attentions, it should be noted, is Donnie Brasco, in which Pacino played a shambling mafia also-ran.) We know that at some unseen level the Camorra is generating tremendous wealth, but not down here among the grunts—these characters are the system's by-products, its renewable resources, its refuse. Yes, Garrone seems to be saying, Michael Corleone's demon-wrestling at his lakeside mansion is gripping to watch, but here are the people who make that mansion possible in the first place.
The third convention Gomorrah tackles is central to mob-movie mythology: the romanticized outlaw. In the end, Goodfellas' Henry Hill isn't just a gangster, he's also a rebel, thrashing against the mind-numbing routines of law-abiding society (this motif figures often into the existential grappling of French New Wave gangster films, too). The final image of Hill living out his life in a bland, unnamed suburb chosen by Witness Protection bureaucrats shows us a caged animal who yearns to be free from the mundane American idyll: "I get to live the rest of my life as a shnook," he says. Hacking up corpses with kitchen knives takes a toll on the soul, but not as much as lawn mowing and weekly grocery runs.
In The Godfather Part II and Scarface, Vito and Tony aren't just fresh-off-the-boat thugs, they're outsiders to whom legitimate avenues to success have been foreclosed and who make their own way beneath the law. Gangland dons often figure as Robin Hoods in mob movies, providing for their communities what the law can't or won't. (The Godfather dramatizes this in its very first scene, when the balding Bonasera, failed by the police and the courts, turns to Vito for help in avenging his daughter's beating.)
This is the myth invoked by those kids who yell, "The world is ours," and Gomorrahsystematically deflates it. In the film's telling, the Camorra offers no meaningful sort of outlaw freedom, noble or otherwise. It isn't a gang of merry men opposed to and operating at the displeasure of establishment power, but rather quietly financed by—and, at its highest levels, inextricable from—establishment power. Two of the title cards that flash at Gomorrah's close illustrate the Camorra's intimate relationship with all sorts of "legitimate" interests. The first announces that, if all the toxic waste that companies have paid the Camorra to manage were stacked up, it would dwarf Mt. Everest by 18,900 feet." The second announces that the Camorra "has invested in the reconstruction of the Twin Towers." In Gomorrah, one hand washes the other, and everyone's hands are filthy.