Friday, December 19, 2008

Gomorra (2008): Dogmatic indifference

GOMORRA, the italian crime movie by Matteo Garrone that won the Grand Prix of the Cannes Film Festival 2008, is one of those very rare films today that leave a lasting impression. But impressive as the film is, it is hard to pin down exactly why it made such an impression. Sure, there is a lot of violence and killing in the film, but that is, after all, part and parcel of the gangster movie. It is no coincidence that GOMORRA makes a revering nod to SCARFACE (Brian de Palma, USA, 1983), one of the classics of this genre. Neither is it the brutality, ruthlessness and uncompromising manner in which the heads of the criminal clans impose and maintain their rule, because that's what they've always done in gangster movies, from Francis Ford Coppola's GODFATHER (USA, 1972; 1974; 1990) series, through, again, Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES (USA, 1987) to the TV-series THE SOPRANOS (USA, 1999-2007). Nor is it the tragic fate of the two cocky adolescents who stumble on a arsenal of hidden weapons that belong to one of the clans and have to pay dearly for their refusal to return them and their attempt to start a two-men gang of their own. They share this fate with lots of other deluded young wanna-be-gangsters as in Sergio Leone's ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Italy/USA, 1984) or Martin Scorcese's GOODFELLAS (USA, 1990). If one were to go by these elements of the film, the best one could probably say is that GOMORRA is a neo-neo-realist version of THE SOPRANOS, since its structure of multiple independent but interspersed story lines makes it more similar to a typical TV series than a feature film and THE SOPRANOS is a series that takes the familiar themes, motives, characters and plot elements from the gangster movie and 'remixes' them to make them fit for the format of the TV-sitcom (although the multiple story line format is not completely strange to cinema either, of course, as many Robert Altman movies make abundantly clear).

This, however, seems to be exactly the point where it hurts. A key image in the film shows how the haute couture tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), who runs a work shop owned by a mobster sees a Hollywood actress on the TV screen wearing one the gowns he was forced to produce against extremely low fees. It is the movies and the TV that reap the results of the labour and life delivered under severe conditions of exploitation and oppression that border on slavery, and turn them into glamorous objects of spectacle. That is, of course, what movies and TV-series do with the lives and the labour of those who are entrapped in a life ruled by criminal clans, competing gangsters, and trigger happy youngsters: they take those as the "raw material" for slick, thrilling, spectacular, engaging entertainment pieces that alwas reassuringly end with the prevailing of the 'good' or the 'just'. The problem, then, is how to make a movie about life in the 'Gomorra' into which the mob has turned many a popular quarter in Napels without making it glamorous, entertaining, thrilling, spectacular and certainly not reassuring.

One answer to the problem is to revert to the lessons of the postwar Italian neo-realists: shoot on location, use non-professional actors and actresses, and show the living conditions of the subjects of your film as they really are. In an age that is oversaturated with images in which almost every imaginable and unimaginable topic has found one form of representation or another - and thus inevitably become glamourized in one way or another in the process - this is no small feat. Italian neo-realism, for its part, has largely contributed to what Walter Benjamin in another context once called "the aesthetization of misery."
Feature films, documentaries, TV-reports and drama, moreover, not only turn every reality, however gruesome, into if not beautiful then at least digestible images, but they also tend to mold them into narrative patterns that provide the images with a minimally explanatory framework as well as with the expectation of some redemptive closure. One could even argue that because narrative promisses a minimal degree of comprehensibility and the reassurance that the represented events will come to some sort of end, images are licensed to turn their subjects into an object of spectacle and aesthetic pleasure, if not straightforward entertainment.

Narrative, moreover, usually also offers the lure of psychological identification with one the characters (usually the protagonist) and thus invites spectators to temporarily "identify" with and "live" the lives of the characters and become, at least for the duration of the screening of the movie, part of their world. Through identification with, say, Umberto D., the homeless pensioner of Vittorio De Sica's movie with the same title (Italy, 1952), the spectator "sees" and "experiences" the vagaries of the protagonist as he does, and becomes "aware" of what it means to live as a pensioner in the ruins of postwar Italy. And again, narrative makes these vagaries if not bearable then at least understandable, as it reassures the spectator that Umberto D's and by implication the spectator's ordeal will come to an end. And although in Italian neo-realism closure hardly ever brough a happy ending, it always promissed some sort of often spiritual or moral salvation and redemption. In movies, whether fictional or documentary, and TV programs, whether actualities or drama, narrative and imagery work in tandem to contain and frame, to clarify and beautify, to order and visualize, to explain and to aesthetize, and eventually to offer molds and patterns, roles and plots, problems and solutions for whatever "raw material" is fed into them. And in this respect, contemporary filmmakers face a situation that is totally different from their postwar neo-realist predecessors.

In these circumstances, adopting a neo-realist style is not quite enough to avoid the traps of glamorizing, romanticizing, and, maybe worst of all, relativizing the sordid conditions of life in Gomorra. After all, Italian neo-realism not only showed the misery of the Italian lower classes, but it also tainted its stories with at least a shred of hope for redemption. And this hope was founded on the explanations of the fate of the protagonists suggested by the narrative format: greed, egotism, indifference or ignorance on the part of the well-to-do as causes for the miserery of the less well-off. Nowadays, that is, the evocation of an Italian neoralist approach would also bring with it the evocation of the narrative schemes that were as defining for this movement as was its style.
Moreover, as happened with the western, the tropes of the gangster movie have now become so familiar, that they have not only become the stuff of parody (as exemplified by THE SOPRANOS, for instance), but also that the shere evocation of such a trope is bound to immediately mobilize these well-known narrative schemes and concomitant expectations in the mind of the spectator. In the day and age of 'visual culture,' there seems to be no escape from "Hollywood."

One possible way out of this conundrum is to adopt a "Dogmatic" approach to the subject. The Dogma95 movement, launched by Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen, explicitly aimed at providing an alternative for the "superficial" and "highly cosmetized", that is, technology and special-effect driven "action movie" of today, which they also condemned for its "predictability" because of its justification of the plot by "the characters' inner lives". To stress its adversity to preformatted narrative schemes, rule 8 of Dogma95's "Vow of Chastity" formally states: "Genre movies are not acceptable." Although the makers of GOMORRA do not refer to the Dogma95 Manifesto and its accompanying "Vow of Chastity" at all, the Dogma95 rules seem to provide the perfect prescription for filmmakers who wish to avoid making a genre movie from the very stuff one of the most popular film genres is made of.

Garrone and his scriptwriter and crew seem to have made exactly the kind of film the writers of the Dogma95 Manifesto had in mind. Obviously, the film has no digital special effects, and some of the film's inevitable special effects, such as the explosion of a car, have been produced "on the spot", in front of the camera, exactly as they would have occurred in the absence of a film crew. The film is entirely shot on location, and, more importantly, the sets and characters seem to not have been embellished by extra lighting, props, costumes, or any other material not found on the sets. The camera, moreover, is constantly hand-held, and driven by an interest to capture the action in front of it than by aesthetic concerns about frame, angle, focus or light. This "point-and-shoot"-like aesthetics, that sometimes borders on the DIY film style of the YouTube uploader, not only gives the film an unmistakenly documentary outlook, but it also turns the spectator into a participatory observer (not unlike what happened in the film Ç'EST ARRIVÉ PRÈS DE CHEZ VOUS (Rémy Belvaux & André Bonzel, Belgium, 1992) in which the film crew follows a serial killer on his exploits), a kind of a field anthropologist and sometimes war reporter.

As an effect of this style, the spectator gets "immersed" into the world of this Gomorra, but as a field anthropologist, tourist, or, for that matter, the protagonists of Lars von Trier's movies, he or she lacks the keys to the codes of behavior, the histories and traditions, the hierarchies and ranking orders, the interests and motives, the ambitions and desires, that govern the actions of the characters that inhabit this place to which the spectator remains an alien outsider. This effect of being too close to see the whole is reinforced by the film's structure. It consists of five (and are there really only five?) story lines in which the vagaries of several different characters are being followed, of which it remains undecidable if, how, or to what extent they are related. And since the film shifts abruptly and seemingly randomly from one story line to another, without, for instance, jumping from one 'cliff hanger' to the continuation of another story line, it is pretty hard to keep track of the developments of each story line separately as well, especially since the continuation of a story line only rarely picks it up where it had left it, and each scene is swamped with characters, names and references to stories that had not been introduced or mentioned before.

This strategy is very succesful in drowning the classical tropes of the gangster movie, that inevitably cropp up in a film like this (the apprentice mobster who refuses to become like his boss; the youngster who sells his surrogate mother for a carreer in the mob; the young rebels who challenge the established order of the maffia; the work shop manager who starts moonlighting for the competition; the conciliere who wants to change sides and offers his services to a rivaling clan, etc.) in a plethora of information and indeterminacy and to make the familiar narrative schemes of the gangster movie inoperative to comprehend each situation at hand. It also prevents any identification with one of the characters, because it never becomes really clear what they want, with whom they are dealing, where they are in their particular stories, and why they do what they are doing. In short, the film refrains from "justifying the plot" through the "inner lives" of the characters. To paraphrase a trope from narrative theory, then, this "Dogmatic" strategy makes many a scene from this film descriptive, rather than narrative.
As a result, the film offers an almost documentary view of the squalid backside of the glamorous images spread by movies and tv, literally as when the camera follows Pasquale on his itineraries through the sweatshop he runs for the maffia and those of their Chinese competitors who hired him to teach their seamstresses the art of sewing, or when the camera follows Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), the accountant/consiliere of one the clan leaders on his way through the living quarters of the families of emprisoned mobsters to pay them their benefits, or when it accompanies the two wanna-be-gangsters when they go to an industrial wasteland to try out their newly acquired guns.

This strategy does to the content of the movie what its cinematic presentation does to the geography of this part of Naples: it turns it into a labyrinth where the spectator never knows where he or she is, and it creates the permanent threat of uncertainty of where the danger might come from and when it will show up. And again, this is not the Naples as it has been made famous by tons of pictures of its historical center distributed by the tourist industry and the movies and TV, but rather the other, less romantic and less illustrous side of Naples where no tourist ever comes.

However, the probably most disturbing effect of this Dogmatic approach is that for the inhabitants of this ecological niche this always and permanently present danger apparently is a fact of life, like rain in the summer is for the Brittish and the Dutch. Here, death, murders, abuses, shootings, and bombings are not an exceptional but the normal state of affairs, however dreadful this may be to the inhabitants of this Gomorra as it is to us, spectators, and they - not us - know they have to live with it. And it is exactly this enforced indifference on the part of the perpetrators as well as the victims of this permanent violence that emerges as the most disturbing feature of this film. There is no Grand Narrative here to be told, no explanation that would hold water, no appeal to consciousness or commiseration that would make sense, no redemption to be promised. In short, the violence in Gomorrah, that lacks narrative motivation, logical explanation, moral justification, and often any purposeful meaning, and is often executed in the most casual way, is the least glamorous, heroic, or romantic violence one could imagine. It is as glamorous as a drizzle in London or Amsterdam. It is this unglamorous and banal, everyday dimension of the violence in this maffia controlled place, that GOMORRA has succeeded in capturing.

Eventually, the spectator reemerges from this Gomorra only more alienated from the characters he or she thought s/he would become acquainted with. This Gomorra turned out to be place where the norms, morality, conventions, codes, and values that supposedly govern most of the civilized world do not apply. Ironically, the spectator winds up in the same position as the protagonists from the movies of Lars von Trier: one either has to adopt the grim outlook on life of the inhabitants of this strange place, or one will be doomed to perish. In all respects, GOMORRA is a Dogmatic treatment of indifference as a survival tool. If one would object that GOMORRA could not possibly be a Dogma movie because the "Vow of Chastity" forbids the occurrence of murders and weapons one should keep in mind that Dogma banned these items because they often serve to spice up "superficial action." In GOMORRA it is the other way around: murders and weapons are turned into unglamorous, indifferent and superficial elements, the nasty components of everyday life in Gomorra. And in this way, this film has succeeded in re-appropriating the topic of the maffia from "Hollywood."

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