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By Phil Thornton
Roberto Saviano’s book on the Camorra’s grip on Naples has resulted in death threats to the author, so it was both brave and timely for Matteo Garrone to turn Saviano’s book into a film that will hopefully shame and provoke the Italian state into action. Naples is currently on the verge of total collapse due to systemic corruption at all levels and Gomorrah exposes just how riddled with corruption Naples and by extension the whole of Italy, is.
Ofcourse Italy has always has been endemically corrupt. Read through any ancient Latin scribe and the same culture of favouritism, bribery and outright gangsterism has always ruled the roost from the days the Roman Republic through the Borgias and Medicis of the renaissance to today’s Berlusconi era. Italy is a country where factionalism and a, shall we say ‘relaxed’ attitude towards the rule of law, has resulted in a political and cultural attitude that sneers at any form of honesty.
Rules, both moral and legal are there to be flouted, undermined or broken at every level from the Pope down to the peasantry and in this ethical vacuum, hypocrisy and cynicism are the only admirable qualities. This manifests itself not only in the organised crime heartlands of the rural south where an almost feudal system is still obeyed but in the institutionalised industrial corruption of the wealthy north.
For Sicily see Turin, for Naples see Milan, for Calabria see Rome. Bent referees of Juventus, bent land deals for Tuscan farmers, bent slush funds for the Vatican, bent bank loans for politicians; bent, bent, bent! Who can blame the ordinary citizen then for either turning a blind eye or taking as much as they can for themselves?
Gomorrah begins with the bulb of a sun bed flicking into life just its occupant is about to die and it ends with two bodies being ignobly dumped into the sea by a tractor. In between several separate yet interlinked stories are expertly weaved together by a director who never exploits or sensationalises the subjects but underplays each and every scene, thereby highlighting the documentary feel to the film. There is no flashy direction, although there are one or two superb moments of cinematography.
For example one scene begins with kids jumping into a tiny pool on their inflatables, the camera then pans back to show this pool ledged precariously on the edge of a huge tenement block, forming part of the notorious ‘Scampia’ district where the Camorra hold sway. Control of the lucrative drug trade is central to this area’s economy, a place where mob bagmen dole out meagre allowances to families in place of state pensions or benefits. A place where loyalty to one faction or another is literally a matter of life or death. A place where dodgy land deals to bury toxic waste pays for loans to clothes manufacturers and drug dealers alike, a place where young kids gain acceptance to the gangs by being shot whilst wearing a homemade bullet proof jacket, a place where local hoods rip off migrant workers and hold up arcades with stolen mob guns; Scampia is like Kirkby on crack, Kirkdale on crystal meth.
Naples, that clichéd jewel of the Mediterranean is depicted not as some squalid yet charming port but as a claustrophobic and rain sodden nightmare world where the sun and the sea are seldom seen, which is probably the case with the population of Scampia and other outskirt estates where tourists seldom if ever visit. Maurizio Braucci’s minimalist screenplay is written entirely in the local dialect and although subtitled into English, I’m sure that the subtle nuances of Neopolitan slang weren’t accurately translated. The action is similarly naturalistic with interior shots of flats and houses, cafes, titty bars and car parks, teeming with activity and an ever present sense of foreboding and imminent violence. There is so much to take in, especially when trying to read the subtitles, that Gomorrah really needs two or even three viewings. That’s my excuse anyway.
At two an a half hours it may well be too slow paced for those expecting some kind of blood n’ guts mafia epic, but the film’s pace is justified in order to explore the different stories and allow them context and to give the characters real emotional depth rather than just moving from one flashy set piece to another, one smart arse piece of dialogue to another, one clumsy polemic to another. Nothing here feels too forced, too overtly political. Although the closing credits provide some statistical analysis of the level of the problems in Naples, the viewer is left to form their own conclusions without the director and the screenwriter hammering home the point with extravagant gestures.
Gomorrah has been justifiably tipped for oscar success yet such is the power of the local mobsters that the author remains in hiding and several key actors have since been arrested for real life Camorra activity. There are no easy answers to Italy’s and Naples’ problems, because just as in Palestine or Ulster, there is a war going on, a war not only against a perceptible enemy, an identifiable foe, but a war against the tyranny of bent officialdom and a bureaucracy that has literally polluted its own population for a quick buck.
Living in a town that is economically blackmailed by an industrial conglomerate to build yet another cancer factory and is given the go-ahead by a Labour council that receives half a million quid pay off for the pleasure of polluting its population, Naples’ greed and corruption seem only too close to home.
The Black House – Colin Jones
I came across this marvellous book in the Open Eye gallery. The Black House was the name given to the Harambee (Swahili for ‘pulling together’) hostel in Holloway, North London that was opened as a refuge for ‘problem’ black youth in the early 70s and became a focal point for black activism. Former ballet dancer turned photographer Colin Jones was commissioned to take photos of the comings and goings at the house for the Sunday Times in a glib look at ‘ghetto life’ and returned to the house over a three year period between 1973 and 1976 to take a series of fantastic black and white photographs that not only refute the charge that all 70s fashions were grotesque but that this kind of self-sufficient activism was the preserve of The Panthers and other Black Power organisations in the states.
The book features both individual portraits, some of which are truly stunning and group shots that drip with attitude and a righteous pride and sense of resentment too. This was the 70s remember, a time that was often brutal for black youth on the streets of London and other British cities. No matter how many times the writers of romanticised garbage like Life On Mars etc pretend otherwise, 70s bizzies weren’t admirable for their straightforward racism and sexism, they were despicable bullies and cowards and this is what lead to Brixton, Toxteth, Handsworth, St Pauls, Moss Side exploding not so long after these photos were shot.
Underneath the surface though, this book also exposes the squalor and poverty of the times. Three kids sleeping a single bed with only an old blanket covering them, a young battered and bruised lad bandaging his cut hand, the almost appliance free kitchen and spartanly decorated rooms, with only a few posters or graffiti to brighten them up. The richness of the black and white format lifts these photographs from the realms of worthy documentary and transforms them into beautiful artefacts, snapshots of a Black British culture and experience that became so easily ridiculed and pilloried by white comedians and their comedy rasta hats and Marley spliffs. Unlike so many of the photographic books that documented the white working class experience of the 70s and 80s, (yes Martin Parr I mean you and yes Tom Wood I mean you) these portraits are not sneering at but celebrating their subject matter. Here are some photos but they are by no means the best in the book.
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