In 'Gomorrah,' Young Men on Fire

Ciro Petrone, left, and the Robert De Niro-esque Marco Macor are a pair of teen "Scarface" wannabes in a film that manages to be artful without being arty.
Ciro Petrone, left, and the Robert De Niro-esque Marco Macor are a pair of teen "Scarface" wannabes in a film that manages to be artful without being arty. (By Mario Spada -- Ifc Films Via Associated Press)
By Jan Stuart
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 27, 2009; Page C04

The scene looks harmless enough. Young boys splash about a kiddie pool high atop a suburban Naples apartment complex, tossing beach balls and darting around a family of Seven Dwarfs statues that adorn the pool's terrace. Abruptly, the camera jumps several giant steps back to reveal an ominous tableau just feet away, as a band of armed young men prowl the building's rooftop scouting for policeman in the streets below.

Innocence nuzzles close to dark intent and the threat of violence throughout "Gomorrah," Matteo Garrone's smashing dramatic account of the murderous Camorra crime network in Italy. Adapted from Roberto Saviano's international bestseller, this vibrantly disorienting cinematic import reinvents the vocabulary of the crime drama with a painterly eye and a feverish documentary style.

Following the lead of Saviano's scalding investigative novel, Garrone and five co-screenwriters point up the sprawling reach of the Camorra organization, jumping between the scenarios of several ordinary characters who are drawn into the Mafia's sundry business operations, sometimes willingly but just as often not.

Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), a diminutive 13-year-old grocery deliverer with the face of a doe, flees his peanuts-wage job to abet the neighborhood's high-rolling narcotics trade. In an echoing narrative, a dedicated tailor named Pasquale (a quietly affecting Salvatore Cantalupo) is lured away from a Camorra-linked haute couture operation to find respect and big money tutoring immigrant workers at a Chinese garment factory.

In the film's grabbiest scenario, a pair of teen "Scarface" wannabes (Ciro Petrone and the uncannily De Niro-esque Marco Macor) provoke the wrath of the local Camorra bosses as they recklessly carve their own swath in the Mafia's arms and drug trafficking.

In contrast with the interweaving threads of Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel" and "Amores Perros," which "Gomorrah" recalls, Garrone's characters neither cross paths nor are doomed to some inevitable horror by a filmmaker's stylish fatalism. Garrone mines black humor (and eleventh-hour hope) in the tale of a clever young man's (Carmine Paternoster) apprenticeship with a gentleman dealer in toxic waste (Toni Servillo), who unloads carcinogenic trash at bargain-basement rates under the guise of "humanitarian aid."

Garrone was a painter before becoming a filmmaker; the training reveals itself through stark images in which characters seem to get swallowed up by an unforgiving environment. He makes haunting use of a concrete apartment complex, a labyrinthine jungle that suggests a Mayan temple by way of Escher. But for the memorable opening shot -- a slow fade-in on a man being irradiated by the blue glow of a tanning machine -- "Gomorrah" manages to be artful without being arty.

The violence is sudden and swift, if no less shocking for its cool brevity. The film's most chilling moment, arguably, is bloodless. Over a card game, a circle of Camorra bosses decide to rub out some kids who are stepping on their toes. "First we have to tell the families," one insists, invoking the organization's demented sense of etiquette. In a culture where armed thugs keep the peace aside their frolicking kid brothers, assassination is all in the family.

Gomorrah (135 minutes, in Italian with subtitles, at Landmark's Bethesda Row) is not rated but contains graphic violence, nudity, sexuality, strong language and drug use and trafficking.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company