FILM MARCH 4, 2009
Our City Dreams
Di San Luca Films
The title of an Italian film, Gomorrah, is a play on words. The subject is not the biblical sinkhole: it is the Camorra, the local Mafia of Naples, which--according to the film and the book that it is based on--has made Naples an equivalent sinkhole. That book was written by Roberto Saviano, a Neapolitan historian and journalist, and was so ruthlessly candid that it became a huge best-seller in Italy, possibly even a cause for some social action. Its accuracy endangered Saviano's life: he now lives in hiding under another name.
"Mafia" is probably the best-known Italian word in America after "pasta" and "pizza." The Camorra, presumably because its doings are more centralized, is less familiar here than the Mafia, but it is equally vicious. (I had heard of the Camorra only because it figures in Wolf-Ferrari's opera The Jewels of the Madonna, which is set in Naples. One never knows when opera will help.) The Camorra has a stranglehold on Naples and southern Italy. Many kinds of crime, including drugs, assassinations, and industrial and judicial corruption, make it very profitable. Dripping with wealth, it invests abroad. According to Saviano, the Camorra has even invested in the reconstruction of the former World Trade Center site in New York.
He and five other writers have wrought a screenplay from his book--not a documentary but fact-based fiction. The director was Matteo Garrone, experienced in both document and drama, who says that the material was so visually powerful that he filmed it as if he were an accidental witness, "a passerby who happened to find myself there by chance." This approach turns out to be apt: many sequences consist of casual motion from face to face and back, rather than formal editing, as if Garrone were watching, not directing. Much of the camera work is handheld, as if it were impromptu. The only element that resembles a visual motif is the recurrence of a blue tinge in some shots, possibly to suggest contiguous atmosphere.
Not many of us nowadays think that Naples is typified by "'O Sole Mio"; still, Gomorrah is an aesthetic antidote for any who have seen the city as tourists. No sequence in the picture has an iota of travel-folder Italy. Except for some commonplace apartments, Garrone has shown his people in their bleak environment--Scampia, a suburb of Naples--in which they seem like jungle creatures at home.
The film begins with a prelude. Five men are in a suntanning parlor, chatting and kidding. Then suddenly one of them pulls a pistol and shoots the other four in the head. We never learn who those men were or why they were shot. The sequence is merely an atmospheric overture.
We then embark on five stories that are braided throughout the picture. Two of them involve teenagers with Camorra ambitions. Another is about a bagman who carries money to families with Camorra relatives in jail. Another is about a big-money deal for the disposal of toxic waste. The fifth is about a gifted ladies' tailor. A smart Camorra racket is cheap knock-offs of expensive dresses. A Chinese gang in Naples sets up the same sort of game and tries to steal their rival's tailor. The Camorra, need we note, prevails. As for the acting, everyone in the cast fits his role precisely, which is about all that can be asked of them in this mosaic structure.
Garrone has made the most of the subject that he thought so powerful visually. Two instances. In one sequence a couple of drug dealers, enlisting future customers, hand out free envelopes of dope to kids who scramble to get them. A shooting kills a driver whose van then careens into a stonemason's yard, damaging a lot of funeral statuary. Through all of the above we do not encounter one non-criminal Italian. Most of these men have principles, Camorra-style. Just as the Mafia does, the Camorra provides not only money but ethics. All these people were born and live in a society of firm beliefs, honored for decades.
Saviano's book (unread by me) is reported to be more intense than previous Italian books on organized crime. Its success is certainly due in some measure to its sensational facts, but its intent was investigation and disclosure, along with, surely, a hope for purgative action. The film, however, is ipso facto quite a different creature. Based on actuality, it is nonetheless not a document. It is enacted and directed, and thus in its very being it is a different experience from a factual book. More: it can hardly have been intended to move anyone to social and political action. It is intended to fascinate, like a pit of vipers (while we listen to mellow Neapolitan songs). However grave its social source, it is here one more brutal gangland movie.
The complete absence of any moral contrast in the film fits the change in latter-day audience appetites. Earlier gangster films rampaged through corruption and killing but always contained at least a final touch of justice done and morality triumphant--anyway, some evidence of a different society. That touch was often mechanical, but it was considered necessary. Now the need for reminders of a moral context around gangland has shrunk. Perhaps this is because of the audience's greater interest in naturalism. Even more possibly, the audience doesn't want its two-hour underworld holiday disturbed. (The Godfather may be the point at which the change was sealed.)
So Gomorrah, which in book form is apparently a consequential work, is here endowed with actors' persons and audible murders and becomes something else. Most certainly there are fiction films being made worldwide out of anger and heartbreak at crime and corruption. (See any annual review of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.) But few of us would imagine that these are the motives behind Gomorrah. For those who want it, this picture provides one more two-hour plunge into a world of scabrous conventions.
A documentary called Our City Dreams has an epigraph from Susan Sontag: "I was not looking for my dreams to interpret my life, but rather for my life to interpret my dreams." It fits.
The director is an Italian woman, Chiara Clemente; her subjects are five women who are artists in New York, so we expect a film with a feminist base. This turns out to be true, but feminism is not its sole point. When we meet the women, we are told the year when each arrived in the city, so we expect accounts in the classic vein of arrival and establishment in a metropolis. This, too, turns out to be true, but not the sole point. Presumably Clemente had those ideas in mind when she started, but her subjects apparently overwhelmed her.
Each of the five women gets about sixteen minutes of screen time. (There is no intercutting: the film is a series of solos.) First is the woman who calls herself Swoon, probably the youngest, who came to New York in 1998. She is pleasantly voluble as she describes her reactions to the concept of space that she found in New York. She is busy with her woodcuts and other things while she confides in Clemente. Some of her work has already been in the Museum of Modern Art, and the party celebrating this accomplishment is up to date.
Next is an Egyptian, Ghada Amer, in New York since 1996, who manages to be both reticent and engaging. She, too, as she talks, works--on her large lacy drawings and paintings. We go back with her to Cairo on a visit to her parents, who are of course proud but who seemingly had to acquire an understanding of her delicate art. The visit over, Amer returns to Manhattan, busy as ever.
Kiki Smith, commandingly brisk, in New York since 1976, is a well-known sculptor. While she works, she wonders why there are no figures of middle-aged women. There are innumerable figures of young women, she says, and some elderly ones, but none of the middle-aged. Perhaps the energetic Smith is filling the gap.
Marina Abramovic, born in Serbia, is a performance artist who has been based in New York since 2004 after many appearances elsewhere. Surrounded by solid art works, Abramovic's performances aim to make the most of their ephemeral quality. Like all performers, she wants to impress minds and sensibilities so that they remember. This is a more difficult task for her highly personal work than for formal actors and dancers who have nests of tradition. With Abramovic, we travel to Thailand a year after the tsunami, and there she instructs men in (literally) punishing the sea by beating it with whips. They presumably will not forget it.
The last of the women is the oldest, Nancy Spero, who has been in New York since 1964 and is still busy with painting of political import. (I remember her protest painting during the Vietnam War.) We see her eightieth birthday party, and subsequently she returns to work. She has her own ideas about everything. Sometimes she paints on odd small pieces of wood that can be hung as one chooses.
Then there is a sixth artist, the director Clemente. Together with her editor, Martin Levenstein, she has fashioned a film that hums with energy and delight. (We can hear it through Thomas Lauderdale's flexible score.) Beyond the fact that she and her subjects are women (which certainly is not incidental to the texture of the piece), and beyond the influence of New York (which is marked), Clemente has composed a lively ballad about vitality and will. Each of her subjects is infused with purpose, with clarity of values--as is Clemente. Quite apart from the art that we see in Our City Dreams, the film itself is art that celebrates devotion.
By Stanley Kauffmann