The Criterion Files: Bicycle Thieves/Gomorrah (pt. 2)

It’s taken me some time, but I finally have the second half of the most recent Criterion Files installment for you to peruse. I realize we’re well outside the week and a half timeline I hinted at in the first part, but by now you should all know me well enough to not take my timelines all that seriously, and if you do, well, maybe this will teach you a valuable lesson.

Gomorrah, 2008, Matteo Garrone

Pardoning and bypassing my own obnoxiousness, we’ll delve right into Gomorrah, Matteo Garrone’s massive and sprawling mob opus, specifically in how it relates to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. As I mentioned in the final paragraphs of the last article, De Sica’s characters are all portrayed as victims of the society that they live in; with Gomorrah Garrone similarly portrays societal victimization in the sections of Naples and Caserta that are run by the Camorra, but he’s peering through the other side of the lens, so to speak. Here, we see the people who do the victimizing just as much as those on the receiving end of their thuggery, avarice, and cruelty, and as a result we see the enormous reach of the activities of the mafia across Italy.

Partly, this is because Gomorrah doesn’t follow one single, consecutive narrative; instead, it collects together the strings of numerous stories and threads them together, though not necessarily in intersecting ways. There may be an argument that favors such an approach, but by keeping each segment mostly separate, Garrone simply broadens the impact of the Camorra’s actions– in multiple different locations, the criminal organization infects the world around them with greed and violence. Allowing the various plots to occur independently of one another makes the Camorra feel more alive, which in turn serves to add urgency and tension to the events of the disparate yarns being woven here.

But more than anything there’s variety in each of the film’s tales. Seeing the spheres of existence in which the Camorra chooses to flex its muscles proves surprising; while we expect crime to run rampant in slums and council housing, observing the mob’s influence in fashion industries and waste disposal sends a shocking, loud, and essential message. In Gomorrah, nobody’s safe and nobody’s free from the Camorra’s business operations– which by extension means the same is true in real life for the people who live in the regions the gang inhabits. (Though the film, despite being heavily invested in realism, nonetheless represents heightened reality.)

So if Bicycle Thieves is about crime as an outside force corrupting honest, hard-working people during a dark and desolate time in Italy’s history, then Gomorrah is about the people behind that corruption. It’s about how that cycle of corruption perpetuates as well as who sustains them– namely gangsters, soldiers in the numerous Camorra clans who comprise a large chunk of the film’s cast. They’re the men who carry out their murderous orders, from the bloody, merciless shoot-out that takes place immediately when the film begins– in which a collection of individuals in a tanning salon are all gunned down while unarmed and helpless– to the execution of problematic upstart wannabe mafiosos. Perhaps worse than that, they’re also the people who convince uncorrupted youths to join their ranks, such as Totò, the principal character of one of the film’s stories.

The rest of the people we meet fit into one of two categories: they’re either enablers, people who through forms of glorification, both overt and subtle, encourage the mob recruiters and muscle in their brutish endeavors, or they’re innocent bystanders who by poor luck or just circumstance find themselves embroiled in the Camorra’s affairs. In the former tier, we have Marco and Ciro/Sweet Pea, two rebellious and unruly teens who very directly celebrate the mafia’s way of life by running their own small-time criminal enterprise outside of the local Camorra establishment; they’re enamored of the lifestyle. On the other hand, Totò doesn’t worship the mafia way of life but chooses to associate with the local Camorra family and enter into their fold to take his first steps into manhood. For him, initiation into the gang resembles a rite of passage, and so he keeps himself ignorant to, or at least detached from, the reality of the Camorra’s nature, even though it means aiding his “brothers” in the execution of his friend’s mother.

In the latter tier, there’s Pasquale. Pasquale’s a tailor of haute couture designs whose boss has ties to the Camorra; when he offers clandestine assistance to Chinese garment workers, he earns the criminal outfit’s enmity. The tragedy of Pasquale’s situation is that all he wants to do is teach and sew. He’s elated at his experiences with his Chinese students, which seem more rewarding to him than the time that he invests in his boss’s factory. But none of that lasts, and after being caught in a hail of gunfire Pasquale’s dreams shatter and his endeavors come to a screeching halt.

In between the guilty and the guiltless, though, there also lie characters who represent a combination of the two. Take Don Ciro, for example, a middle man tasked with compensating families of jailed or deceased mobsters; he’s fully aware of the terrible things the Camorra does, but he keeps himself in their service and does nothing to alter the status quo until fate forces him to choose change or face his own death. Meanwhile, Roberto, a graduate working in waste management, also keeps mum over the illegal and immoral actions of his boss, Franco. Unlike Don Ciro, though, Roberto’s tolerance reaches its peak and he makes a choice of his own volition.

But he doesn’t ever truly stand up to the Camorra. No one does. Pasquale’s moonlighting may be something of an act of defiance against mafia tyranny, but he hides it. He has to, just like Don Ciro has no option but to comply with the Camorra defectors who threaten his life. Even Roberto’s confrontation with Franco feels weak; he waits for too long before saying anything and even then he only quits his job and walks away. All of this speaks to the power the Camorra holds over everybody whose lives they touch; it’s viral, a blighting disease that taints every aspect of life in Campania. Garrone’s exposé on the Camorra certainly lays the mob faction bare and points a righteous, accusatory finger at them for their crimes, but taken in a broader sense, Gomorrah portrays those actions as being infectious to their very core. How are criminals made? Through the grinding wheels of the machine that is the Camorra empire. 

One thought on “The Criterion Files: Bicycle Thieves/Gomorrah (pt. 2)

  1. Pingback: High Commission « nearly30yearsitalian

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