A Snapshot of Hell: Matteo Garrones Gomorra

I sat riveted to my seat for two plus hours watching the prize-winning film by Matteo Garrone, Gomorra. At times I squirmed nervously, viewing some violence or murders in the film. The film, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2008 and the European film prize the same year, was inexplicably overlooked for the Academy Award for best foreign film. In a sense, the cinematic experience is, as one critic put it, like “a snapshot of hell.” It certainly lends another and more ominous meaning to the famous epithet, “See Naples and Die.”

The film is based on the best-selling book of the same title by Roberto Saviano, the twenty-nine year old who infiltrated into the Camorra, which dates from the early nineteenth century as a crime syndicate in and around Naples and Campania. Like an ethnographic study, the film follows five different foot soldiers in the Camorra network. Interestingly enough (and appropriate for the movie version), the figure of Saviano is left out of the film. There are, in this world, no heroes. Two of the characters in the film implicated in the dirty work of the Camorra, however, are able to extricate themselves from the crime network. One sees the terrible human cost of illegal dumping of toxics. Another flees his work at a Camorra fashion industry to take up driving a truck.


We see a young grocery delivery boy insinuating himself into the crime network. We follow a fashion designer who works for a Camorra dress company. He tries to get extra work with a group running a Chinese sweatshop who tries to muscle into the Camorra terrain and he gets brutally wounded for his efforts. We meet a middle aged operative (Dom Ciro) who helps to pay off families of Camorra members who are in prison or have died in internecine gang fights. Unlike the Mafia, the Camorra lacks a single hierarchical authority structure. In this often alien world, we spend time with two young testosterone-driven males (Marco and Ciro, enamored of the characters in the movie, "Scarface") who steal a cache of Camorra arms, angering the local mafia chieftains. A signature shot in the film shows these two young men in swimming suits wading into Naples bay and shooting machine guns for fun.

Much of the film was shot in a housing complex, Vele di Scampi, near Naples, which adds to a claustrophobic feel for much of the movie. The crew could only shoot in the morning since by afternoon the crack addicts who live there became more aggressive.

Saviano, the author of the original book, has been under close police protection since the book appeared in 2006 and created something of a sensation in Italy. Part of the power of the book was that it named names of the many legitimate companies (bakeries, high fashion design outfits, companies involved in the disposal of toxic waste) owned and operated by the Camorra. In so doing, the book exposes the many ways ordinary citizens are, indirectly, linked to a world-wide crime syndicate. In recent months, people have gathered in Milan, Messina, Naples and Rome in support of Saviano. A group has created a database which gathers information about the Camorra’s activities and their many links to the surface or legitimate economy.

14,000 violent deaths in the past thirty years have been attributed to the Camorra. In March 2009 a large demonstration, estimated at 100,000 demonstrators, was held in Southern Italy to protest the many victims of this violence. Relatives of victims, carrying pictures of their loved ones, led the march where, later, the names of 900 people killed by the Camorra were read out through loudspeakers. The march was organized by a group called Libera. Its president, Father Luigi Ciotti, reminded people, however, that “a day like today is meaningful only if we keep fighting the other 364 days of the year.”

Paradoxically, the global economic downturn has allowed the mobsters to tighten their grip on the economy, as they siphon off profits from their illegal activities to buy stakes in the retail, tourism and housing sectors. The Camorra has long flourished amidst a culture of Omertà (silence) for hundreds of years. It has infiltrated or corrupted the ranks of politicians and police officers. The solution, ultimately, would lie in Italy’s ability to offer values, education and work opportunities for the generation who turn to the Camorra for protection and privilege and access to the economy. Whether there is the means and will to do so is another question.

Because of a long-standing interest of mine in globalization, I have watched in horror as organized crime syndicates benefit from the myriad opportunities of globalization. There has always been smuggling and prostitution but now they have become globalized and highly sophisticated. Misha Glenny, who has carefully studied the Russian Mafia, argues in his book, McMafia: Seriously Organized Crime, that mafias sometimes serve as a kind of midwife for capitalism in transition economies, performing a valuable role in protecting economic transfers and transactions. They offer a species of governance in failed states or governments.

Yet organized crime (as we are now seeing at our borders, as drug cartels threaten to turn Mexico into a failed state) remains a social evil. As one commentator has put it: “Although it is often genuine, mafia protection remains a social evil. In the economic sphere, it promotes inefficiency and reduces competition. A major task of a good Mafioso is to ensure that his clients enjoy market supremacy. By protecting thieves and other criminals, he also promotes further crime. Mafias operate without consideration for justice, fairness or the well-being of society at large.” (Federico Varese, “Protected” in Times Literary Supplement, Feb. 20, 2009, p. 24).

At the end of Gomorrah, the viewer is reminded that the Camorra has invested heavily in the project to build a replacement for the World Trade Towers in New York. We are also told of the billions of annual profits of this crime syndicate. Clearly, minimally, we need a clearing house which will help consumers see, transparently, the ways crime moneys are invested in and run businesses they buy from. Then, we need boycotts of such blood money capitalism. Achieving these goals, given the sophistication of the new globalized crime syndicates, will be a high order.

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