Normally, comparing a film to a television program's intended as a slight, a knock against a film that didn't have the sweep and scope you'd expect to witness on the big screen, but when I compare director Matteo Garrone's Gomorra to The Wire, I hope you'll recognize I mean it as a compliment. Set in the provinces around Naples, where the crime organization known as the Camorra is not parallel to the everyday workings of society but instead is the everyday workings of society, Gomorra's a sweeping, stirring film that has the shoot-and-loot tension of the best crime cinema but also has the scope and serious intent of great drama.
Based on the novel by Roberto Saviano, Gomorra follows five separate stories through the slums and streets in the provinces near Naples. Don Ciro is the local clan bagman, dispensing payouts to families affiliated with the clan. He's a civilized criminal, and the uncivilized times are beginning to wear on him. Marco and Ciro are young, dumb and eager to be independent criminals, heads full of dreams of glory and quotes from Scarface. Roberto finds a patronage position assisting Franco in toxic waste disposal, a lucrative business for the Camorra, especially as it involves poisoning the province's wide-open spaces and passing the savings on to their customers. Totò is 13, and eager to take part in the community and opportunities offered by low-level drug dealing work. Pasquale works as a tailor, helping Camorra-linked businesses make couture knockoffs, and he's offered an opportunity that may leave him set for life or marked for death.
Director Garrone (The Embalmer, First Love) manages to put the camera to work in a way that feels both observational and artful; some of the film's silences and spaces evoke the classic films of Antonioni, while some more surreal moments bring to mind the playful perversity of Fellini. (A scene where Marco and Ciro wander through a wetlands marsh clad in just their underwear trying out a stolen cache of high-powered firearms is beautiful, goofy and terrifying all at once, for example.) And while Gomorrah offers shootings and suspense, it also offers a grim view of modern European life, demonstrating the logical-yet-illogical extension of free-market capitalism from mergers and policy to murders and poisoning. Franco asks Roberto "Do you know how many workers I've helped by saving their companies money?" The Camorra isn't the alternative to the way things are; the Camorra is the way things are.
Garrone works with a cast that includes professionals and new faces, and has the urban rubble of modern Italy as his backdrop. Much of the film revolves around a housing development that's almost another character in the film -- huge and sprawling, vital and ruined. But there are real human moments from the characters as well, like when Pasquale sincerely instructs an apprentice knockoffs tailor that the work must be done "with love and feeling," or Don Ciro's confusion at the way the world is changing around him and the old ways are pushed aside by greed and violence.
Favors and intimidation; threats and excuses; this, in Gomorra, is how the world works, and you'd be a fool to argue with it. Gomorra has plenty of virtues to help recommend its broad-canvas portrait of vice; it's vulgar and vital, human and horrifying, and you sincerely care about what happens to these people and you recognize that you're getting a glimpse into a very specific part of the world while also witnessing a series of stories that could be playing out almost anywhere in the modern world. It's hard to imagine Gomorra attracting an audience on American art-house screens -- where "Foreign Cinema" mostly means fun and frivolity among the well-to-do for an older, well-to-do audience -- but moviegoers who aren't afraid of the rough, real raw stuff in modern moviemaking should seek out Gomorra's bleak beauty and cruel clarity by any means necessary.