After seeing Saving Private Ryan, a film critic whose name I have forgotten felt ashamed: the gore and terror of Private Ryan, especially in its first twenty minutes, made his enjoyment of other, less graphic war films, seem like complicity in a lie. So it is with my own reaction to the film Gomorrah, which makes meditations on the mob like The Sopranos seem trivial and dishonest.
Gomorrah, based on a book by the Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, explores the world of organized crime in Naples. As Jack Newfield observed of the American mob years ago, these are not men of honor: most of them would rather stick an ice pick in your ear than do an honest day's work. They kill for money and thrills, betray each other at the drop of a hat, and conduct rackets that poison people with toxic wastes that cause cancer.
Gomorrah relates all of this through several stories with greater and lesser connections to each other. If the plot lines can sometimes be confusing, at its best Gomorrah's use of street scenes and actors who seem more like locals than stars recalls the best of the Italian neo-realist cinema.
As John Dickie observes in a Guardian review of the book that inspired the film, there are some idiosyncrasies to the Neapolitan mob. It is more anarchic, more gang-oriented, Dickie argues, than the hierarchical rackets of Sicily. Nonetheless, the film has lessons that reverberate far beyond Naples.
Organized crime flourishes in the absence of effective government and the presence of an all-consuming profit motive. In these circumstances, the mob's violence and its ability to insinuate itself into all aspects of human relations make it so evil.
My wife covered the mob in Italy for many years, and she never shared my enthusiasm for The Sopranos. Last night, after viewing Gomorrah, she explained that her problem with The Sopranos is that it sets recognizably normal family life within the context of mob mayhem. But once the mob is in place, she explained, normal family life is impossible. All you get is a Hobbesian war of all against all.
Films and tv shows that explore organized crime as a metaphor or as a way of getting at something else miss the point about the mob. It reduces all relationships to power, violence and cash value. The great virtue of Gomorrah is that it makes this undeniably clear. No wonder the mob in Italy, as Sylvia Poggioli reports, has put a price on Roberto Saviano's head.