by Tony Dayoub
Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah is one of the films I missed at last year's New York Film Festival. Too bad, I thought, since it had won the Grand Prix at Cannes—one of the few awards I put some stock in—earlier that year. It has been MIA on home video for quite a long time, relatively speaking. But tomorrow it debuts on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray, as part of a larger distribution deal between IFC Films and Criterion that will include such other festival favorites like Hunger, and two of my personal favorites, Che and A Christmas Tale. This is an excellent boost for IFC Films, of course. But is this a good deal for the Criterion brand, long thought of as the most prestigious home video company?
Obviously, Gomorrah has its proponents. It's not easy to win at Cannes... just ask Synecdoche, New York which walked away without a prize last year but was held in such high regard here in the U.S. months later. But Garrone's harsh look at Naples' criminal organization, the Camorra, left me pretty cold—inexplicably some might say, since I'm quite the Italian film enthusiast, and have a very special place in my heart for gangster films in all their forms. But Gomorrah, set up as a five-pronged narrative that converges only on a thematic level (think Traffic), is quite a slog to get through. And I'm not referring to the pacing. Maybe it's the bleak "end is nigh" mood evoked by the crumbling Naples-in-decline setting. Or the feeling one gets that much of this notion that not only does crime not pay but it's not even that glamorous has been relayed to us before ad nauseam—in The Sopranos and Martin Scorsese's films (he gets a "Martin Scorsese Presents" credit in Gomorrah).
To be fair, Garrone's film—an adaptation of a book by Roberto Saviano—plays up certain interesting qualities of the gangster genre that seldom get attention. One is the toy soldiers aspect of the participants, their daily thrills fulfilled by a regression to childhood as they behave like little boys with their guns. The other is the homoerotic nature of the criminals whose whole world—business dealings and codes of honor, macho posturing and male bonding—signifies an atypical obsession with virility and masculinity. In this way it is reminiscent of earlier Italian films such as Pasolini's Accattone (1961). This intersection of themes is best exemplified in the scenes involving the young Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), two teens that choose to emulate "independents" like the movie character Tony Montana of De Palma's Scarface (1983), endangering their own lives by refusing to acknowledge the reality of working outside the Camorra's strict rules. As if to explicitly make my point, the film's most memorable scene involves Marco and Ciro running around in their briefs playing with weapons they stole from the Camorra.
The film's liabilities, and strengths, do not or should not reflect on Criterion's technical mastery in the home video arena, of course. The prestige label does the usual fantastic job producing a fantastic high definition digital transfer, working under both the director Garrone and cinematographer Marco Onorato (who creates some spectacular imagery). They also include a wealth of informative supplements such as a 60-minute documentary on the making of the film; interviews with Garrone, actor Toni Servillo, and writer Saviano; an essay by critic Chuck Stephens; and deleted scenes.
No, Criterion shouldn't be questioned in this respect. But the choice of issuing the problematic Gomorrah as a numbered Criterion collection edition—a indicator of a certain level of cachet for film buffs—instead of perhaps as one of their lesser Eclipse label releases leaves me a little ambivalent about their new co-venture with IFC Films.