Gomorrah: Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review

Gomorrah’s (2008) trailer boldly claims it as “the greatest mafia movie ever made.” The referenced blurb continues with “[the film] strips every last pretense of romanticism from ‘The Godfather’ Saga.” Admittedly, Coppola’s series is the holy grail of mob flicks, so, while curious, I wasn’t sure exactly how to take this or whether it was even desirable. Yet, this gangster import from Italy continues to garner critical word of mouth and is presented by Martin Scorsese whose recommendation should reassure any avid film fan. Now with Criterion’s Blu-ray edition, we get a chance to see what all the hoopla is about.

For what it’s worth in testament to the subject matter accuracy of the 2006 novel (of the same name), author Roberto Saviano received serious enough threats against his life to warrant indefinite police protection. Detailing the multi-layered facets of the Camorra (a centuries old criminal society in and surrounding Naples, Italy), the literary work contains “hundreds of films” though to make a manageable cinematic adaptation, director Matteo Garrone chose five particular tales. These comprise a grocery delivery boy hoping to get recruited into a gang, two “Scarface” wannabe punks skirting the authority of the local crime boss by performing unauthorized robberies, a mid-level manager responsible for collecting rent/protection payments but whose loyalties are unstable, a tailor who unwisely sells his skills to fashion workers in competition with the Camorra and a higher level employee who coordinates illegal dumping of toxic waste.

Garrone’s artistic intent is neither pro nor anti Camorra but rather to bring the harsh, often violent reality of the felonious organization to the screen without glamorization (actual affiliated gangs were consulted to add to the realism). To this end, particular characters aren’t the focus but instead the manner in which their portrayals coalesce in the narrative. The director depicts organized crime stripped to its basic elements through a stark, objectifying visual composition with rock bottom stylistic flare that lends towards comparison of Gomorrah being a gritty documentary. This in conjunction with the five stories intertwining but not having relevance to each other (Garrone makes an apt comparison to Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts”) aside from thematic elements of showing the Camorra’s pervasive influence at different levels of society results in a unique and difficult cinematic work.

To be honest, it took a second viewing for the film to come together as I found myself somewhere between slightly lost and disinterested upon my initial watching. Even though purposely un-stylish (there is no score and minimal use of music throughout), the “documentary feel” sometimes comes off more as an explicit gimmick than a transparent artistic technique. This resulted in a lack of emotional investment in the plot threads and little concern for particular characters such that when several “get what is coming to them,” I will readily admit it plays out with utter appropriateness but I was not moved in the least.

Does this make Gomorrah a bad movie? I would answer a reserved ‘no’ in that I think Garrone achieves his desire of shining an uncritical light into the criminal world of the Camorra, but it doesn’t necessarily make for an enjoyable movie. The obvious retort would be that Garrone’s film is not meant to be enjoyed but “experienced” as a slice of austere reality. While I do appreciate the director’s precise technique and use of unadorned imagery, it is not enough to make me want to revisit this particular mafia world anytime soon. I’ll stick with “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” or “the Sopranos” where the admitted romanticism makes for a more sentimental (though no less violent) affair.

While Criterion is renowned for presenting classic cinema on home video, the studio has from time to time put out recent releases they feel are deserving of their special attention (though I will never understand how Michael Bay’s Armageddon made the cut). Gomorrah is one of those lucky films that if it were not for their efforts likely wouldn’t have seen a domestic BD release any time soon. While I am not head over heels in love with the flick, I respect the studio’s choice and am glad Garrone’s work is getting access to a wider audience. Per their standards the a/v is impeccably accurate (if not always technically impressive) and though we don’t get a commentary, there are over two hours of “making of” features (all in HD and for the most part in Italian with English subtitles). Plus the requisite booklet is 16 pages covering cast/crew, technical aspects and an informative essay from film writer Chuck Stephens.

The 1080p, 2.35:1 framed transfer is approved by director Matteo Garrone and director of photography Marco Onorato, so I have no reason to doubt this is how the film is intended to appear delivering a raw, gritty feel appropriate to the themes of the plot. Different storylines receive unique touches with contrast boosted in one instance and a bit flat in another or colors displaying slight over saturation (most noticeable in skin tones) while being washed out in the next scene. There is no lack of detail throughout with facial close-ups being almost engrossing as you can count individual pores, and grain is strong but evenly presented so as never to be distracting. Not necessarily a beautiful image but an often starkly impressive one that syncs precisely with Garrone’s intent.

The Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is the sole audio choice and does its job fairly well. Dialog is a huge part of the film and delivered crisply from the center channel. Beyond that the soundtrack is basically functional matching up with the documentary sentiments by not utilizing a score though random Italian pop tunes appear bringing some solid bass with them. There isn’t a huge use of the rear channels with most of the action taking place in the fronts and center, though moments of gunfire and cars/motorcycles can bring your surround setup to life. Optional English subtitles are provided.

“Gomorrah”: Five Short Stories (1:02:32, HD) – This documentary was shot for Fandango in 2008 and is split into five sections that touches on each story within the film. There is no overriding narrative which makes this similar to the main feature in having an unadorned feel like we’re getting an unfiltered glimpse into shooting. Yet this can also make for a bit of an obtuse effort where at times the realism can be a bit tedious, but this is still worth the time for fans to see the director do his job in which his passion exceedingly shows through.

Matteo Garrone (22:37, HD) – The director talks about adapting the novel, dealing with the author’s death threats, the dangers of shooting on location and what he hoped to achieve with the film. Though shorter than the main doc, I think this condenses more useful info into its runtime. Very interesting is when shooting where the drug gangs controlled the territory, the crew wore passes that distinguished them from rival gangs and gang members would give advice on how accurately the drug deals were shot.

Toni Servillo (13:54, HD) – Toni plays Franco in the movie and is a lifelong friend of the director. He talks about Matteo’s directing and shooting techniques (including use of physical locations, art vs. realism and his passion for his craft), the work on adapting the novel and critical reception of the movie.

Actors (10:32, HD) – The actors who play Don Ciro, Franco and Pasquale give insight into their characters and working with Garrone.

Roberto Saviano (43:00,HD) – The author discusses the circumstances following the publicity of his novel, including needing constant police protection from death threats, and goes into amazing detail about the day to day life of the Camorra comparing what was adapted from his book. If you want solid background behind the events in the film, here it is.

Deleted Scenes (12:55, HD) – 7 scenes (with play all option) that are interesting to watch (and in great HD quality) but I can’t say would or wouldn’t have added much to the film. I could really have used some commentary to give context to why these were cut.

Trailer (2:28, HD) – The theatrical trailer gives a good feel for what the film is about.

While Gomorrah may be a bit too “de-romanticized” for my tastes, director Matteo Garrone succeeds in his intent to present a realistic, dispassionate slice of modern Italian criminal life. The film’s impressive technical prowess often outweighs its artistic expression though I respect the effort enough and realize others may better appreciate what is lost on me. For this Blu-ray release, Criterion continue their tireless work to bring the most deserving of cinema to home video in the best presentation possible and Gomorrah is no exception. We get a solid HD transfer, faithful lossless audio and a decent (though not overwhelming) selection of supplements.

– Robert Searle

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