Fascinating creatures, gangsters. Gomorrah (Criterion Collection) opens on a group of them, beefy and hard-looking men, indulging in tanning-booth rays and manicures at a grimy salon. The all-encompassing blue of the UV light and the unexpected preening behavior primes you for yet another flashy cinematic installment of Lifestyles of the Lawless and Ruthless. Within minutes there’s blood on the walls and director Matteo Garrone’s film has proven rather ruthless itself, and certainly not just another flick faintly glorifying made men. The movie is based on Roberto Saviano’s 2006 book of the same name, which exposed the clannish Southern Italian crime organization the Camorra, infamous for its viciousness and the reach of its insidious tentacles. Gomorrah carries through the same clear-eyed, nitty-gritty view of Neapolitan thug life, which is sure to appeal to no one who sits through this powerful depiction.
For example, there’s nothing seductive about the existence of Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato). A hangdog middle-aged man in a windbreaker, he spends his days shuffling from apartment to apartment in the wretched cellblock-like complex that serves as one of Gomorrah’s main settings, doling out cash to the families of gang members in prison. Young idiot wannabes Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are playing Scarface for real, doing stick-ups and stealing a cache of Camorra firepower, but no matter how brash they are, they still live under the heavy heel of the local bosses. Master tailor Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) sews Paris fashions for a living, but he does so for a Camorra-controlled shop; moonlighting for a rival Chinese firm means getting smuggled to work in the trunk of a car like dangerous contraband. While well-turned-out, avuncular Franco (Il Divo’s Toni Servillo) rakes in euros disposing of toxic waste on the down-low, scuffling teenage errand boy Totó (Salvatore Abruzzese) tries to ingratiate himself with the local camorristi, working his way into a brutal life that no one in their right mind would want if they had any other choice.
All of these individual storylines overlap without actually linking up, leaving no central plot, and no central protagonist to root for. But, again, Garrone’s not making just another gangster movie. Shooting handheld, documentary style, with little conspicuous artistry, the director focuses on the characters only in illustrating how their lives are run by the Camorra, whether they’re members or not. Just as insidious, Gomorrah illustrates how the Camorra insinuates itself into the lives of those beyond the organization and the slums it dominates. Franco may bury haz-mats in a local quarry like so much dog crap, endangering truck drivers, children, and anyone who drinks the local water, but it’s implicit that he saves millions for the respectable firms who pay his lowball rates, no questions asked, greasing the wheels of legit capitalism. And then there’s the scene where the eternally pressed and harassed Pasquale gets a glimpse of the glimmering world where the luxury goods he makes on the cheap end up.
Gomorrah isn’t exactly a polemic, however, though neither is it an apologia. Its cumulative effect is to relentlessly strip away any glamour that has attached itself to organized crime onscreen and replace it with a resonant vision of street-level crime that offers little gain except subsistence and little future but a bullet.
The unnamed protagonist of Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control (Focus) seems to be some sort of hood at first blush. With his sharp suit and stoic demeanor, Jarmusch fave Isaach De Bankolé suggests yet another cinematic freelance hitman as he receives a cryptic assignment in a Euro airport lounge. He arrives in Madrid and sets up in an apartment, but the man doesn’t stalk anyone. Instead, he meets in cafes with a series of mysterious contacts, played by the likes of Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Gael Garcia Bernal in weird get-ups. Each confirms that the man doesn’t speak Spanish and passes him a coded note in a matchbook; many deliver strange monologues about films, molecules, or bohemians. One contact, played by a resolutely naked Paz de la Huerta, devotes herself to getting into the man’s tailored pants. But he focuses on his mission, whatever that is, and orders a lot of espresso—two espressos, each in a separate cup, to be precise. By the time you actually get some inkling of what he’s after, it hardly matters.
Jarmusch’s recent films often amount to little more than a bundle of enthusiasms and stylistic tics, and the fact that they’re generally hip enthusiasms and tics earns him a lot of slack from fans. Here they actually add up to something, albeit something elusive and indulgent. The Limits of Control references existential ’70s Euro thrillers, especially Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, to which Jarmusch pays homage by secreting a red circle into scene after scene (try spotting them for drinking-game fun). During Swinton’s spiel to the man, she mentions a particular image she’s not sure if she dreamed or saw in a movie. And that’s what seems to be going on here: Jarmusch has filmed a dream, or at least made a film that approximates the inscrutable logic and flow of a dream. It certainly works better when thought of as such—as a personal style exercise/mood piece—than any other way.