Monday, July 20, 2009

The Camorra Is Everywhere

(Editor’s note: Michael Gregorio’s original post about the 2008 Italian Mafia movie Gomorra can be enjoyed here.)

That gifted Rap Sheet journalist, Ali Karim, consumed many pages earlier this year promoting a certain book by a certain Swedish author who has enjoyed huge international success. In the name of all that’s just, I claim a limited amount of space for some further thoughts about the Italian film director, Matteo Garrone, and his film Gomorra, which has been widely treated as a commercial failure, especially in America.

My wife and I watched the film again last week, and we saw
more and more to praise.

This time, however, I pretended that I was an American while watching it, and I admit that it speaks in “languages” which many (all?) Americans will find perplexing, and I am not just talking about the incomprehensible Italian slang of Scampìa, the futuristic housing project outside Naples where the film was set. Indeed, had I been an American with little or no knowledge of central Italy and the Neapolitan Camorra (that is, the local Mafia--you see, I’m explaining already!), I would certainly have benefited from having somebody enlighten me on the finer points.

So, here goes!

In the first place, what is the Camorra?

Wikipedia supplies a short answer, calling it “a mafia-like, criminal organization, or secret society, originating in (and around) the city of Naples in Italy. It finances itself through drug trafficking, extortion, protection, and racketeering, and its activities have led to high levels of homicide in the areas in which it operates. It is the oldest criminal organization in Italy. ... The word is almost certain­ly a blend of ‘capo’ (boss) and a Neapolitan street game, ‘morra,’ in which two persons wave their hands simultaneously, while a crowd of gamblers guess in chorus at the total number of fingers exposed by the principal players. This activity was prohibited by the government and some people started making the players pay for being ‘protected’ against the passing police.”

OK, fair enough and full of folklore, but the English version of Wikipedia leaves out the most important defining characteristics.

Here is my translation of what’s missing, taken from the Italian version of Wikipedia: “The structure of the Camorra is far more complex (than other mafia-type organizations), and it is internally fragmented to the extent that it is composed of many rival clans, who wield influence over different territories, structures, and economic activities, and each one has its own specific modus operandi. The situation is complicated further by alliances, which range from tactical agreements suspending belligerence, to open warfare between different clans, often developing into enduring blood feuds, which are notable for violence and murder.”

The fragmentation and intertwining complexity of the five stories in Garrone’s Gomorra--sudden changes of clan strategy which result in an open clan war--are represented in all of their capricious viciousness in many of the film’s scenes. It all starts when the Scampìa housing project splits into two--the main clan divides, and all that was certain is now terribly uncertain. Weekly pay to the families of secessionists who are in prison stops dead. Children from rival families have to say good-bye to their friends. “Maybe I’ll have to shoot you,” says one boy. “Can’t we even eat a pizza together?” replies Ciro, a young kid who delivers the groceries. One of Ciro’s customers belongs to the same clan as his own family. But that woman’s son switches sides, goes over to the secessionists, and a group of up-and-coming clan hoods decide to make the woman, Anna, and her family of “traitors” an example to the rest of the neighborhood. Anna realizes that she is no longer accepted in Scampìa, but she refuses to be ejected, and she barricades herself inside an apartment. She needs food, however, and she trusts no one except Ciro to deliver it ... Ciro, though, has been offered a choice by members of his clan: “Are you with us, or against us?” With no room for maneuver or excuse, the “innocent” boy lures the woman out of her house, where she is shot to death.

The question remains: Is Ciro guilty? And, if so, of what is he guilty?

Let’s go back to the Italian version of Wikipedia: “The term ‘camorra’ indicates a mental attitude, the principal characteristics of which are the result of bullying and coercion which enforces ‘omertà’ (loyalty to the criminal code). The difference between belonging to a camorra clan, and being subjected to its rules, is so finely drawn in areas where the camorra mentality is diffuse that it is almost impossible to see where legality ends, and where criminality starts. Camorristic behavior influences the whole social spectrum, involving businessmen, ‘respectable’ professionals, public administrators, and all those people who play a role in the organization and the day-to-day ‘administration’ of crime. Indeed, the criminals themselves now call this ‘the system.”’

If you’ve seen Gomorra, then you’ll remember the two young hooligans who steal a cache of guns, then start shooting and robbing. They have committed the greatest crime of all. They don’t want to belong to a clan. They think that they can get by on their own. So they appropriate firearms (which belong to the boss of a clan), stick up a games-hall (which belongs to the boss of another clan), challenge their local clan boss, and laugh at his threats to cut their heads off. Then they accept a job to eliminate the rival-in-love of yet another boss. What happens? The bosses of all the clans get together, draw the renegades into a trap, murder them, and dispose of the corpses. The boys, as one of the killers says, “are just two little snot-noses.”

In one of this picture’s closing scenes, a truck driver watches television in an all-night café.

We met him earlier in the film, when he was making haute couture dresses in a Neapolitan sweat-shop. Pasquale is his name. He’s a master tailor; the world’s finest craftsmen come from Naples. And like everyone else, they are subject to the rules of the Camorra. The Camorra holds fashion-jobbing auctions--and takes a cut. Its members give out dress-making contracts--and take a cut. They loan-shark money for the costly materials to hard-pressed businessmen--and they take ... Well, let’s just say that the Camorra always takes a cut. So, what happens? The Chinese appear in Naples. They make things faster, cheaper, almost as good as the locals, but not quite. The Chinese pay Pasquale to teach them the “Made in Italy” tricks. And it’s there that the trouble starts. The local economy rocks, a clan war breaks out, people get killed, and Pasquale runs away from Naples and becomes a long-distance truck driver. While watching the Oscar Awards ceremony in an all-night motor grill, he sees one of the dresses that he had recently made for peanuts decorating the shapely shoulders of that beautiful blond American actress, Scarlett Johansson.

This vignette appearance--lasting only two seconds and featuring a huge Hollywood sex symbol in the squalid world of Naples--represents a perfect synthesis of what the Camorra is, and what Matteo Garrone’s film, Gomorra, and the 2006 novel by Robert Saviano on which it is based, want to say about it.

The Camorra is everywhere.

Even on the Hollywood red carpet.


Anonymous said...

i loved the film and the book. It doesn't even matter whether one "likes" it or not; the point is that americans still think of the mafia in 1920s-40s bullshit Godfather terms and that has no bearing on the reality of what mafia/big business is today. Take the youth portrayls in the book: that is exactly parallel with what's happening here (except that in CA we only think of black & brown gangs). The camorra just takes everything to the walmart level, which makes them a multi-national corp just like all the other ones. If people don't get it that's cuz they don't know what's really going on in the streets.

Ali Karim said...

Excellent Post Micheal - I'll grab the book and DVD - Pity I missed you when you were over in London recently, but as I mentioned I didn't get an invite to that particular party, and was actually not far away at a party thrown by Quercus, who publish a certain Larsson book.....

However, my wife and I were most amused at the anecdote - when you; calling out [at that party] to Hanif Kureishi -"Ali, Ali so good you could make it..." Hanif must have been confused [as this has happened to him and I several times in the past]. I wonder if he reads Philip K it might fuel his paranoia.....

Incidentally here is an Asian Publishing Director of a very prestigous house, who looks a little more like me than Hanif or Rusdie, and the two of us always share anecdotes about when we've been mistaken for each other. One time a 'wannabe writer' refused to believe me when I told him I was a reviewer and worked for Shots...Rap Sheet...etc He was convinced I was lieing, trying to duck out of reading his 'wonderful manuscript'...then at the LBF this year I was mistaken for an Indian Publisher...all which I find most amusing, being a big Philip K Dick reader.....

Look forward to meeting you next time I'm in Italy or when you're in London

Best wishes


Hope you are as excited about Larsson III as I am

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate even tragic that the Italian Government as well and the USA have chosen not to deal with the problems of gangs in the cities. Social programs are a long term cure but only after the rule of law is enforced in all areas.

why is this not done? Apathy I think, as you can choose not to enter these areas and the criminals rarely act outside these areas.

A failure to act is similar of one that would choose not to treat cancer in a certain area of the body with hopes it won't spread.

We need not live our lives in hope when action is necessary.