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?