True-life gangland sagas look to be the mob hits of the year. The Fourth of July weekend brings Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, a vintage slice of 20th century Americana, with Johnny Depp on the lam as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as FBI bureau chief Melvin Purvis. And I spent the better part of a recent Friday at a screening of the two-part, four-hour Mesrine, the Che of French gangster epics, which opens in August. The bloody biopic stars the excitable Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) as a trigger-happy thief, kidnapper, and all-around wise apple who, in an outrageous sequence that caps the first chapter, busts out of a high-security Quebec prison, then returns with maximum firepower to free some comrades and avenge himself on the institution.
I trust Mann to do a good job with the rich, myth-busting material provided him by author Bryan Burrough; his book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in J. Edgar Hoover’s “war on terror” in the Depression era, though I’m sorry HBO didn’t pursue a miniseries as had once been planned. (I suspect that only that portion of the book recounting the oft-told story of Dillinger, played by Lawrence Tierney, Warren Oates, and Robert Conrad in past movies, will make it to the big screen.) Through meticulous research, Burrough succeeded in making Dillinger, the Barker gang, Bonnie and Clyde and the whole den of thieves that erupted in the early Thirties smaller than life, shrinking them down to wormy, human size while simultaneously deflating Hoover’s vastly inflated PR about the trackdowns.
The problem is that when you cast stars in the parts, the hot air inevitably rushes back into the balloon. The larger-than-life glamour returns. The French picture doesn’t try to sell Jacques Mesrine as some kind of anti-hero; we get a taste of his boring bourgeois upbringing, a look at his Algerian war service torturing prisoners, and we’re off on his crime spree for a the next few hours. But it doesn’t have to make us like him. With a live wire like Cassel in the picture, we’re already complicit, by his side, if not on it.
The Italian contribution to the genre, Gomorrah, strips everything away. Martin Scorsese is presenting it in this country, but anyone looking for Mean Streets, Goodfellas, or Casino is likely to come away disappointed. It begins with a bang—a rather absurd one, as warring mobsters open fire on each other at a tanning salon (under the bluish lights, they look like Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen). But the rest of the “action,” when it comes (and it sometimes comes at the edges of the widescreen) is fleeting, and no laughing matter. Some of the actors have vaguely recognizable faces; many are non-professionals, drawn from the forlorn housing projects and cheerless Neapolitan suburbs depicted in the film. (When a star does turn up, and one does, unexpectedly, the appearance is wistful.) The shambling, shameless gangsters wear the cheapest tracksuits. The effect is like an early episode of The Sopranos, before the cast became established in the public eye. Gomorrah, however, is much grubbier, and bleaker, “told from the point of view of the slaves, not the masters,” says writer-director Matteo Garrone in an informative interview in the current issue of Cineaste magazine.
Some history is in order. The Italian audience, which welcomed this difficult-to-hug movie, knew the story behind the film coming in; we come in cold, and Garrone throws us into the deep end (while giving us the means to sort it out over its engrossing 137-minute running time). Gomorrah is a play on the word “Camorra,” the name of the Italian syndicate, whose reach extends far beyond its base in Naples. It is based on a muckraking “non-fiction novel” by 29-year-old journalist Roberto Saviano, who has been under police protection since its publication in 2006. Garrone, whose previous films are more intimate than this, hasn’t felt the same cold embrace from “the octopus,” as the Camorra is referred to, but it is fueled by the same sense of moral outrage.
Gomorrah tells several stories, which are interlocked in the sense that the protagonists are powerless to escape the mess syndicate control has made of their lives. (The title could be a rebuke to Babel, and that whole annoying genre of simplistic, everyone-is-connected pictures.) The cinematographer, Marco Onorato, gets in close to the squirmy middleman who is squeezed by rival clans as he attempts to collect payments for their jailed colleagues; the haute couture tailor who moonlights for deeper-pocketed Chinese firms, risking the wrath of Camorra-run firms; the two would-be mobsters, under the influence of Scarface, who steal guns and fancy themselves made men, with dire consequences; and the protÃ©gÃ© of a toxic waste distributor who has no qualms about illegal dumping. When his migrant truck drivers, disgusted by his lack of concern for their on-the-job safety, walk out, he hires local kids to drive the big rigs instead, in a stranger-than-fiction moment.
The tailor’s story is particularly poignant, but sentiment has no place in the film. One vignette concerns a 13-year-old delivery boy who is initiated into the Camorra—the ritual involves his being shot at close range while wearing a bulletproof vest—then co-opted into the gang warfare that is tearing his building apart. His friendship with the mother of a rival gang member is put to an awful test. The film, which ends with the bulleting of several facts about the Camorra across the screen, is as inescapable as a waking nightmare.
Gomorrah is frightening in the best sense: Moral. Inspired by its good example, perhaps Mann, who made the absorbing smoking-gun drama The Insider, may choose to adapt George Packer’s spectacular Feb. 9 New Yorker piece about Florida and the national disgrace of our real estate collapse, “The Ponzi State”—and call it Sodom.