"Gomorrah," a portrait of mob-ruled Naples, is a violent, long, hopeless, dispiriting movie, and also possibly a work of genius.
It's based on the phenomenal 2006 non-fiction muckraker by Roberto Saviano, a book that captured the parasitic, predatory terrorism of organized crime so thoroughly that the author has been forced into hiding - journalism's own Salman Rushdie - living under a death sentence imposed by offended gangsters.
Director Matteo Garrone is determined to capture the book's pitiless and unrelenting realism, and on that score he succeeds.
Certainly, as mob movies go, it isn't the classic "The Godfather," the history of which is recounted in a recent Vanity Fair article. The piece recalls how New York mobsters tried to stop the movie, then endorsed it when they found its glossy portrait of mob life to their liking.
Said Sammy the Bull Gravano: "It made our life look honorable."
There is none of that in "Gomorrah." Its gangsters are sociopaths and goons, and the movie gazes actuarially at the body count wrought by mob activity - addiction, sex industry exploitation, toxic dumping and plain old murder.
These account for the movie's blurred layers of story - a kid who wants to join one of the local gangs, a bagman who delivers payment to families living under mob "protection," a tailor working for rival sweatshops, a waste-disposal front man, a couple of freelance hoodlums whose independence may doom them.
Sometimes the anecdotes built around these characters move the story forward, sometimes they don't. Director Garrone wants to avoid sleek narrative, as if too much structure or even emotion would create a slickness that would betray his documentary mission.
This feels too austere at times. The director denies himself the emotional engagement that even a documentarian would earn simply by training his camera on the situation.
Still, there are times when the emotions slip through anyway. There is a memorable, melancholy performance by an exploited tailor who makes haute-couture dresses for an Italian sweatship, and sneaks off to make extra money by doing the same thing for a Chinese competitor.
He learns that the mob does not like competition, but at least he lives, and a scene that blends his own fate with that of his beautiful handiwork (it ends up at the Oscars) is the movie's best.
The sly reach of that scene is the signal that "Gomorrah," though certainly a mob movie, is something else, too. It's a look at what happens when people accept mounting levels of corruption - personal, corporate, governmental - as a part of a system that can't be reformed.
As bad as things are, we can take solace in the fact that we haven't reached that tipping point. At least we hope not. *