Reading about a film should never be more exciting than watching it. And if that film’s subject is the mafia—whose daily dealings are as naturally cinematic as it gets—well, the folks at the helm really took a wrong turn somewhere. So it goes with Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s fictionalized portrait of Naples-based crime organization the Camorra. It was Italy’s submission for Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration and the thought that this was supposedly Italy’s most impressive film of 2008 is disappointing indeed.
Gomorrah kicks off promisingly with a swift grab of the throat: In the alien blue glow of a tanning salon, a few image-conscious men are baking their skin and buffing their nails while dance music plays. Soon, a smiling and clearly familiar player enters, teasing one of the tanners about his body and asking as to the whereabouts of another guy. But as soon as the tanner’s back is turned, the infiltrator shoots him, setting off a series of quick assassinations. Pulp Fiction–style, the film’s title appears in larger-than-life block letters as the salon’s soundtrack continues. A raw, wild ride is sure to follow, right?
Not so much. You never learn who the dead or their killers were; neither will you really get to know the subsequent parade of characters whose nefarious activities are spied in Gomorrah’s excessive 137-minute runtime. A money-carrier delivers unlivable wages to the family members of imprisoned mafioso and listens to their complaints. A couple of kids, perhaps just out of their teens, think they can outsmart the local kingpins and work for themselves. A child who delivers groceries with an eye on thug life is unwittingly turned against his best friend when the friend switches sides in a gang war. An ambitious, decent young man gets disillusioned watching his boss get rich on toxic-dump deals. A tailor risks his life teaching Chinese seamstresses how to knock off haute couture.
Didn’t know that sewing could be a hit-worthy enterprise? Neither did I, but it’s certainly an intriguing plot line—once it’s given some more context, way too late in the film. Until then you’ll be too bewildered trying to make sense of the random, lopsided glimpses of disparate tales that Garrone attempts to pass off as an Altmanesque narrative. But there’s no spine attached to these tendrils, no storyline that dominates the others. I don’t give names because the script rarely uses any. Arguments have been made that this anonymous chaos is the whole point: The Camorra is everywhere and unforgiving. It offers neither glamour nor outsize personalities. Close your eyes and spin around; whatever or whomever you spy is likely touched by the organization’s corruption.
Fair enough, but that doesn’t make for compelling art. Gomorrah’s unflinching, verité style (much of it was filmed in a suburban Naples apartment complex that’s allegedly a hotbed for drug activity) makes you wonder why Garrone didn’t just make a documentary out of his source material, a nonfiction book of the same name by journalist Roberto Saviano. Naturally, a mob doc might prove a dangerous enterprise, particularly considering that Saviano has received death threats from the Camorra and has been under police protection since his book became popular. Still, when a handful of stats given before a film’s end credits is more concisely eye-opening than the two-plus-hours of fiction that came before it (one wallop being that some Camorra funds have gone toward construction on the former site of the World Trade Center), it’s clear that such gripping material deserved different treatment. Early on, the two power-hungry kids run around a building shooting unloaded guns and shouting, “I’m Tony Montana!” They wish.
An American Affair Directed by William Olsson
An American Affair, originally given the oof-worthy title Boy of Pigs, is only now being released, though it was filmed in 2006. As its story about the developing friendship between a 13-year-old Washington kid and his hot, very grown-up neighbor in 1963 unfolds, it seems conceivable that the film was finally allowed to see daylight thanks to the inexplicable lauding of its narrative cousin, The Reader. Both films involve controversial periods of history, government secrets, and, more prominent, the icky relationship between a horny kid and his old-enough-to-know-better crush.
Score one for William Olsson’s debut, however: When American Affair’s young Adam (Cameron Bright) puts the moves on Marilyn Monroe stand-in Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol), she doesn’t let him get too far before hissing, “Get out, you little shit.” Words I wished I’d heard from Hanna Schmitz! (But then would Kate have her Oscar?)
Unfortunately, just because Olsson’s film skips the sex doesn’t mean it ditches the sentimentality. Freshman feature writer Alex Metcalf’s script is seldom anything but ludicrous. Adam, the son of apparently well-heeled journalists (absurdity No. 1), is a dour ass, acting like a prick to his private-school friends and pushing past first base with a sweet girl who was more than willing to let him put his tongue down her throat. His parents (played with an insufferable combination of stiffness and bemusement by Noah Wyle and Perrey Reeves) don’t bother to keep their jokes quiet when they know he’s jerking off in the bathroom. So it’s a great day when Adam talks his way into Catherine’s life after catching her sitting open-robed in her window, offering to do chores so he can save up for a nonexistent trip. He’ll soon find out that she’s an artist, a mistress of JFK’s, and bad news: “She’s different than we are, Adam!” his mom crows. “She doesn’t care about the same things!”
Whatever that means. Adam doesn’t know, either, so he continues to spy, a skill he’s shockingly good at: Not only does Adam follow Catherine all around D.C., he also eavesdrops on the CIA agents (James Rebhorn and Mark Pellegrino) who know her personally and are trying to get her to sweet-talk her lover into gabbing about the Bay of Pigs invasion. Adam’s parents have also told him that she has a child, which he immediately and quite unbelievably uses as some sort of emotional ammunition when he presses her about her affair with Kennedy. “Some things should be private,” Catherine says. “Like your son?!” Adam retorts. Schooled!
The silliness continues for the whole of the film, with Camelot conspiracies ostensibly at the film’s center while Adam and Catherine are really what’s centerstage. Watch them giggle during a paint fight! Feel the heartbreak when Adam breaks into Catherine’s apartment and has to hide in the closet, watching her screw another guy while a tortured, tinkly soundtrack plays! The filmmakers save the best—or the worst—for the end, however, as corruption ends at the bottom of the Exorcist stairs and love reveals itself in a surprise portrait. Turns out An American Affair needed more than a name change to save itself from embarrassment.