If you think you are going to sit through an epic parade of endearing glorified goons like those Italian-American mafiosi we're so fond of in the States, you are in for a surprise. Gomorrah is almost documentary-like in its realism. The people in it make Tony Soprano look like a cross between Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale.
For starters, you see a side of Italy that you never see, nor would you wish to, mainly horrid housing projects where the camorra rules, dispensing drugs, arms, and paying people off for their compliance and complicity. The movie is claustrophobic; it never leaves the dreary places where the camorra operates. The police only show up after someone's been shot. There are no police heroes trying to stop these people. They seem to operate unimpeded. The basest corruption spreads like an incurable disease. Only a few regular people with a smattering of conscience try to live in it without soiling themselves. It is virtually impossible. Everything is ruined and wasted by the mob. These people taint and pollute and turn to refuse everything they touch, not only in Italy, but all over the world.
The movie builds its case slowly by following different characters who are all interconnected. This episodic structure, which has proven so forced and inorganic in movies like Syriana or Babel, really works here, allowing it to show with plenty of detail and sharp observation how the mafia controls and co-opts absolutely every single aspect of life.
Don Ciro, for instance, is the guy who makes the payoffs at the projects, handing money to families to keep them in line. A mousy man, he looks like an accountant, the opposite of a rent collector. Quite mistakenly, he believes he is somehow not connected to the money he hands out or the people who employ him.
All the young kids work for the different gangs. Nobody seems to go to school. Toto, a beautiful child of about 12, gets enlisted, like all the kids his age, to become part of a faction. Kids are used as sentries, drug runners and betrayers. His mother is trying to keep him honest, but she is powerless. Toto is loyal to the thugs. Very subtly you see his transformation from a normal child to a kid with the arrogant swagger of a criminal. His story is heartbreaking.
There are two young morons who like to imitate Al Pacino in Scarface and who think they can take on the syndicates by stealing a cache of arms and stealing drugs from some Africans. They are beyond stupid, uneducated brutes, enamored of a myth of power and violence that is reinforced by movies, and surrounds them much more crudely, in reality. Older adults have no problem wasting them, even knowing that they are mostly harmless. It's an animal world of very base instincts and sheer revenge.
Pasquale is a gifted tailor, employed by a mafia guy to make haute couture knockoffs. Some Chinese entrepeneurs, who for some reason have a factory in Naples, pay him good money secretly to teach them how to make gorgeous dresses. Pasquale has a crumbling atelier with a handful of seamstresses. The Chinese have a gleaming factory, with respectful workers that admire him. There are many subtle ironies like this, which show how none of this illicit business actually helps anybody progress. Pasquale forges a friendship with his Chinese counterpart, but it doesn't matter because one knows it's all going to come down to destruction. He symbolizes the corruption of the soul of Italy, of its best people.
And then there is the toxic waste dumping, which would be funny if it weren't so dreadful. An affable man in an elegant linen suit, looking the part of a legitimate business man, arranges to dump the most poisonous toxic waste in quarries near Naples. It's huge business. What goes on in this episode is almost surreal in the absolute lack of conscience or responsibility. It will make your jaw drop in astonishment.
The response of this elegant mafia don to the complaint of his protegé, who finally balks at the most shameless malfeasance, is "this is how things are". This is how it works. The apex of cynicism.
At the end of the film a title says that the amount of barrels of toxic waste dumped in Sicily is twice as high as Mount Everest and that cancer has increased exponentially in the area. Not that the camorra would give a shit.
Gomorrah has many wonderfully observed details that add up to a sustained outrage. It is about the particularities of the Italian mob, but it is also about the total devastation caused by human corruption. It gains in impact the more you think about it.