"Real life" is not at all like a film. In "real life" there isn't a plot or clearly defined, developed characters. There's the chaos of randomness. We never really understand what's going on because so much is happening all at once. We see only minimal slices of everything around us as we try and impose some sense of order.
So if one is going to try and make a movie that tries to approximate "real life" or avoid slipping into cinematic sentimentalities it's going to be an uphill battle to make a film that most people are going to be able to appreciate.
This is the problem with "Gomorrah," the acclaimed Italian mafia film. It seeks to take the gangster film to a new level. When the genre has been so thoroughly mined with "The Godfather" trilogy, "The Sopranos" TV show, and Martin Scorsese's trilogy of masterpieces ("Goodfellas," "Casino," and "The Departed,") where can one actually go to tell a fresh story? Answer: "real life."
Adapted from Roberto Saviano's acclaimed book, "Gomorrah" tells five interwoven stories about Italy's brutal Camorra crime syndicate. The first involves a pair of young gangster wannabes who loot a cache of Camorra weapons. Inspired by their hero Tony Montana from "Scarface" they use their newfound firepower to begin their own life of crime, much to the consternation of the local Camorra boss whose weapons they stole.
Another plot thread focuses on a quiet, fearful man whose job entails delivering money for the Camorra. The third looks at Camorra-influence at a dress factory and the effect it has on Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) a tailor who tries to make some extra money by training workers at a rival factory. A fourth depicts the Camorra's involvement in illegal toxic waste disposal. And the fifth shows how a 13-year-old boy is slowly sucked into this world of violence and crime. These stories aren't given the standard mafia treatment. Instead of the violence being cool and dramatic it's random, just showing up out of nowhere to shock and horrify.
Now, I imagine if I'd read those above two paragraphs before going into "Gomorrah" I might have enjoyed and appreciated it a little better because I'd have had some basic understanding of just what the heck was going on. Even knowing what to expect, though, the film is very hard to follow. Like "real life" we're just dropped into this chaotic world of violence without any explanation whatsoever who people are or what's happening.
The result is that it's difficult to really connect with the characters or follow the loose plots. This isn't a gangster movie like "The Godfather" or "Goodfellas" that have deeply sketched characters, an easy-to-follow narrative, or the benefit of narration. This is more like someone with a camera following around six different groups of people who are trapped in the Camorra world and then splicing the narratives together. This is "real life," and those expecting an accessible, ultra-violent Italian version of "The Departed" are going to get bored, confused, and ultimately dissatisfied.
However, properly prepared for what "Gomorrah" is, and prepared for a more intellectual art film instead of a flashy gangster flick, a viewer could leave a bit more pleased.
I didn't care for most of "Gomorrah" - it was just very confusing and inaccessible. Because I couldn't really grab on to any of the characters I was just left floating in a wild cinematic ocean without any life raft to survive. I expect, though, that having a better understanding of the territory, "Gomorrah" would likely benefit tremendously from a second viewing or even a third. There's obviously a lot going on and substantial commentary on an important social phenomenon (the mafia) and the question of human evil. The film just requires its viewers to do a little work for it - something we American cinemagoers generally aren't accustomed to being challenged to do.
Perhaps if those interested in "Gomorrah" familiarize and prepare themselves a bit they'll enjoy it more on their first viewing than I did. "Real life" cinema can still satisfy, provided we know it's coming.