Power, money and blood: these are the 'values' that the residents of the province of Naples and Caserta confront every day. They have practically no choice, and are forced to obey the rules of the 'System', the Camorra. Only a lucky few can even think of a leading a 'normal' life....
The mafia picture has become such an over-familiar genre that filmmakers need to do something fresh with its routines or risk wasting everyone’s time. Teleseries The Sopranos scored by not only blending a gangster drama with a soap opera but also building a subversive central portrait of a tough guy collapsing inside from anxiety.
This Italian film, a runner-up prize winner at Cannes last year, takes an altogether different tack by depicting the activities of the powerful Neapolitan Camorra organisation with the stripped-back realism of a Ken Loach film and, going back further, to the Italian neo-realists post WW2. The idea seems to be that by capturing the naturalistic performances of unknown actors (mainly non-professionals) with unemphatic lighting, the audience will regard all this ruthless murder and corruption as something akin to reality and not merely as the usual generic conventions being taken out for a spin. It’s an approach that often pays off powerfully, though at nearly two hours and 20 minutes, this is not a film without its longueurs.
Based on a non-fiction book by Roberto Saviano (listed as one of six co-writers and currently under police protection), the film’s tone is cool and matter of fact. Director Matteo Garrone and his co-writers are less interested in thrills than in dissecting the daily routines of community members whose lives are affected by the octopus-like reach of the Camorra. To this end they interweave five storylines.
One of the first characters we get to know is Toto, a spotty 13-year-old kid who starts to run errands for drug dealers in a concrete slum increasingly split by factional drug war. At the other end of the scale is Franco, a supposedly respectable businessman specialising in the illicit disposal of toxic chemical waste. He’s not above resorting to hiring youngsters like Toto when his truck drivers walk off the job due to safety concerns.
Also caught up in the net of illegality that seems to underpin the entire local economy are Pasquale, an haute couture master tailor moonlighting by secretly teaching his skills to his boss’s Chinese rivals; and senior citizen Don Ciro, who weekly pays out support money to the sometimes ungrateful families of prisoners. Finally there’s out-of-control teenage punks Marco and Ciro, who think they’re the heirs to Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in Scarface but are seen by their elders as dangerous idiots who will need to be forced into line.
Where the film scores is in the use of startling moments set in a series of striking locations, apparently chosen to suggest the film’s major theme of entrapment - a housing estate that resembles a jail, an underground shooting range, et al. Narrative development is minimal and pacing hardly brisk, an issue in the first half. Yet the film’s stories gradually creep up on you and some of its images will be hard to forget.
Sunday 18 October, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Tuesday 20 October, 1:50am on SBS World Movies
Genre: Drama, Crime
Director: Matteo Garrone
Starring: Gianfelice Imparato, Tony Servillo, Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchettino