What strikes the viewer first and most evidently is that Gomorrah (2008) feels nothing like any mob movie we have seen. It is indeed appropriate that the film takes place in Naples, Italy, the origin of so many mob families that washed up on the New England shore and went on to help inspire the entire mob movie genre in America. Called Napoli by the locals, the city is really the film's most prominent star. Set in the present day, the film peels back a thin, dusty layer of romanticism to reveal a 21st century city that sits rotting atop ruins, both literal and figurative.
Another thing that is blatantly peculiar about this film is that the mobsters depicted do not remind us of those romantic, almost stately warring families from such films as The Godfather and Goodfellas. Most of the "soldiers", as many members of mob families are called, are very young, some no older than 12, and they are more akin to the gangs of Southern California than anything that Martin Scorcese ever put on the screen. Maybe we are finally seeing how Italian mobs really are, sweeping away the myth of the Corleones, or maybe, being set as it is in modern times, this similarity to homegrown American gangsters is evidence of the global, post-national world we now find ourselves living in. The kids in Gomorrah wear bling, listen to rap and electronica, carry out drive by shootings, and even act out scenes from the film Scarface. This current generation, too young to remember the Soviet Union, is coming of age in one nation, all over the world. Free-trade, American cultural imperialism, and the proliferation of the internet has knocked down old borders and laid waste to old customs and traditions.
Cinematically, this picture reminds us of two films. First, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep; both films clearly know the worlds they depict in amazing, vivid depth, and each is largely a collection of moments from these worlds. At the end of many scenes we are left to wonder why we have just been shown what we've been shown and what on earth the characters were doing. Another film that comes to mind is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros, in the way that it's filmed, and the fact that each tells several parallel stories that are all connected in the grand scheme of things. Gomorrah, however, feels more voyeuristic than these films. Things are presented in a very fly-on-the-wall fashion.
That is not to say that we are kept from connecting with the characters. Perhaps the most memorable is a pair of teenage Scarface enthusiasts who knock about in their rundown section of Napoli, robbing arcades, annoying the local kingpins, and wantonly, ecstatically firing a stolen cache of automatic weapons at the Mediterranean Sea.
Many of the familiar tropes are present, from the cycle of retribution and questions of loyalty and influence to the kind of autonomous society the families create, but they are laid upon a framework that is utterly original. Gomorrah is not only a challenge to mob pictures, but to cinema in general. The structure, narrative, editing, fluid camera work, and complete embrace of real locations as compelling set design all threaten to redefine, or at least further refine, what filmmaking is in the 21-century.