Less glamorous and more invigorating than many an American mob flick, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah trains a jaundiced eye on several organizational levels of the Camorra crime families of Naples, Italy, deconstructing the gangster mythos while still generating enough cinematic excitement to fill out the film's ambitious narrative structure. Drawing on Roberto Saviano's best-selling exposé, Garrone cuts back and forth between five stories, ranging in subject from the lowest rungs of the power ladder (the pre-teen initiates) to those involved in ambitious macro-level activity (a man who engineers the dumping of poisonous materials - a somewhat obvious metaphor for the noxious influence of the Camorra), which he smartly refrains from linking together through the sort of screenwriting contrivances so common to the multi-strand narrative.
But if Garrone's skill as a storyteller ensures that the film never lacks for narrative thrust, then his insistence on de-glamorizing the activities of his subjects means that the picture takes on a certain dry, emotionless cast which tends to blunt its overall impact, even as the brutally matter-of-fact slayings begin to pile up in the film's second act. Gomorrah's most memorable characters are a pair of ambitious teens who go from playing at Scarface in tenement halls to stealing drugs and guns from the big boys. But these kids are so arrogant and finally so stupid that we have little to do with their story but wait out their inevitable demise with minimal personal investment in the proceedings, even if Garrone concludes the segment with an image of such stark precision that it endows the kids' lives with a retrospective sense of felt waste.
For the most part the director is less concerned with evoking a specific sense of place than in imparting an atmosphere of scuzzy Euro-squalor. If his visual strategy - a lot of close shots often arranged in carefully choreographed hand-held sequences, a penchant for leaving backgrounds conspicuously out-of-focus - ensures that we have little in the way of concrete detail to glom onto, it instead imparts a disorienting cast to the proceedings which, combined with glimpses of bombed-out apartment buildings and the thud-thud of the disco-pop on the soundtrack, situates the viewer uncomfortably in a suitably squalid milieu. Never cutting away from this self-contained world, avoiding self-consciously beautiful imagery, Garrone refuses to offer the possibility of alternatives, either visual or narrative. At one point a character says "I don't think I'm cut out for this line of work," but in the world that Gomorrah posits there is no other line of work to turn to: the whole economic and social system is predicated on crime. If Garrone's evocation of this claustrophobic universe ensures that his critique draws sufficient blood, though, it also leads his film to a certain impasse. Exposing the rotten heart of the system, decrying the waste of life that it entails, the film then simply ends, bringing with it neither any kind of emotional resonance nor any sense of possibility beyond its own bleak conclusions.