Matteo Garrone was born on October 15, 1968 in Rome in a family of artists: his father is a theatre critic and his mother a photographer. Although he has been making feature films since 1996—Terra di mezzo (1996), Guests (Ospiti) (1998), Roman Summer (Estate romana) (2000), L’imbalsamatore (The Embalmer) (2002), and First Love (Primo amore) (2003)—Garrone came to international attention only in 2008 when his film Gomorrah, described as “the best gangster film since City of God,” won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and the Best Director award at the European Film Awards and at the David di Donatello Awards. Garrone’s next film, Reality (2012), won the Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, while his most recent one, Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti) (2015)—inspired by the Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, a 17th century Neopolitan writer and a forerunner of fantasy literature—won the David di Donatello award for Best Director and was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
It is hard to believe that Gomorrah (2008) and Reality (2012) are the work of the same filmmaker. While Gomorrah is relentless in its cynicism and violence, Reality is whimsical, sentimental, comedic, and full of human warmth. Most surprising, however, is the latter film’s relationship to the Neapolitan Formula, which it seems to revive rather than criticize as the New Neapolitan Cinema, of which Garrone’s own Gomorrah is a prime example, does.
The New Neapolitan Cinema
In his book The New Neapolitan Cinema (2012) Alex Marlow-Mann argues that the New Neapolitan Cinema (NNC), to which Matteo Garrone belongs, has replaced the melodramatic approach of the Neapolitan Formula with a historical-materialist approach, calling into question the sense of social cohesion and communal belonging underlying traditional society. Marlow-Mann contends that the New Neapolitan Cinema is a political cinema insofar as it exposes the Neapolitan Formula’s celebration of traditional Neapolitan society—in which the individual feels the need to protect himself and his family from an external threat in the absence of a State or institution capable of structuring society—as actually perpetuating and glorifying anti-social and criminal structures like the Camorra (the infamous Neapolitan Mafia).
The ‘Neapolitan Formula’ (NF) achieved its fullest expression in the period 1946-1959, and its three main structuring influences were Neapolitan song, the sceneggiata (a kind of musical soap opera), and film melodrama, the dominant genre in post-war Italian cinema. While the NF is heavily indebted to Neapolitan melodrama, whose typical narrative is structured around the notion of ‘napoletanita’, the structures of melodrama are closely aligned with the worldview of Southern Italian, and particularly Neapolitan, society, which critic Percy Allum has analyzed in terms of German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies’s categories of Gemeinschaft (communal) and Gesellschaft (associational) societies: “Gemeinschaft is a social formation based on feeling, in which every individual considers every other individual as an end in himself, knows him personally and shares a great deal in his private life. The individuals who compose it intrinsically value their mutual relationship and the fact that they are a vital part of such a social entity. […] In contrast stands Gesellschaft, the social formation founded on interest, in which the individual considers the others as the means, knows them impersonally, and shares his external life only with them. Individuals value their relationship only extrinsically” (Tönnies qtd. in Marlow-Mann 48).
The New Neapolitan Cinema (NNC), to which Garrone’s award-winning films Gomorrah (2008) and Reality (2012) belong, reflects the crisis of ‘Napoletanita’ (Neapolitan identity). NNC narratives stress social exclusion and existential alienation, questioning the traditional image of the Gemeinschaft family and its patriarchal conception. NNC films dramatize the lack of cultural identity and a prevailing sense of alienation, entrapment and decay, focusing on ‘social undesirables’ such as scugnizzi (street kids) and drug dealers. While the depiction of the traditional family unit as the cornerstone of Gemeinschaft society was central to the sense of community in the Neapolitan Formula, the NNC exposes the repression, exclusion and violence on which family relations of traditional Gemeinschaft society are founded. Finally, in NNC films relationships between characters are defined in terms of power and economic dependence rather than in terms of family and romance (as in the traditional sceneggiata).
Set in the infamous Scampia, a crumbling housing project on the periphery of Naples, Gomorrah explores the brutal effects of the camorra (the Neapolitan mafia), which can be attributed to the collapse of the Gemeinschaft society. The absence of any social or economic prospects for Scampia’s inhabitants and their consequent rejection of the socio-political beliefs of the Gesellschaft and the institutions of the State create an enormous and desperate void. The only thing capable of filling that void is the camorra, which is only ever referred to as ‘the System’. The film analyzes the camorra in its concrete specificity, an approach that has led many scholars to criticize Garrone’s film for failing to consider the role of the State and the Law; others, however, believe that their absence from the film is intentional to drive home the point that it is precisely the absence of these institutions that permits ‘the System’ (the camorra) to exist.
Scampia blends elements of a Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft society. The Gemeinschaft aspects of Scampia are most evident in the scenes with Toto and Don Ciro. When Tito delivers groceries to Maria, whose son is in prison, we get a glimpse of her living room filled with mothers, children, and neighbors, all playing games, talking or watching TV together, in a comforting image of familial togetherness. This scene, as well as other scenes in which we see residents helping each other—e.g. Don Ciro helps Maria clean her apartment after a pipe bursts— or kids playing together in an inflatable pool up on the terrace—depict a small-knit community based on close interpersonal relationships of trust and loyalty.
As a result of the isolation of the suburb from the city proper the community of Scampia resembles a big family, all of whose members depend on the patronage and protection of the camorra, which has come to occupy the place of the patriarch in a traditional Gemeinschaft society. On the other hand, however, the main law governing life in this quasi-familial community is the law of money. Scampia, then, is a mongrel Gemeinschaft-Gesellschaft society, a ‘mafia family’ in which the laws of the mafia/the corporation are superimposed on the traditional laws of closely knit communities such as the family unit. Scampia is not a corporation or a business because it is structured like a family, but neither is it a family because its members are bound by the secondary relationships typical of Gesellschaft society (ownership, commodities, economic relations, obligations, debts, loans) rather than by the primary relationships of unconditional love and trust that structure a Gesellschaft society. Ultimately, however, secondary, Gesellschaft relationships take precedence over primary, Gemeinschaft relationships, which quickly disintegrate when Gesellschaft relationships are compromised. For instance, when the camorra bosses find out that Maria’s son has betrayed the clan and order her to leave her apartment, she refuses to move out and is, from that moment on, considered persona non grata. Her new ‘status’ in the clan affects Don Ciro’s relationship with her: he can no longer continue to be her friend because he risks being ostracized or, worse, punished for it. He thus sacrifices his personal relationship to Maria as soon as he sees it as jeopardizing his more important relationship to the camorra. Toto, too, sacrifices his personal relationship to Maria, to whom he has been delivering groceries every day, when the clan bosses order him to help them execute her for betraying the clan. Although Toto initially hesitates, ultimately he privileges his loyalty to the clan over his personal relationship with Maria.
Throughout the film Garrone makes use of off-screen space to create a constant sense of invisible threat and an escalating sense of uncertainty and distrust, positioning the camera in such a way that we usually don’t see when a character is about to be shot at or killed. The construction of filmic space in Gomorrah suggests the omnipresence and omnipotence of a hidden ‘System’ that exercises its unlimited power from an invisible place, making responsibility difficult, if not impossible, to allocate. The sense of threat produced through the use of off-screen space is compounded by a lack of distinctiveness in the spaces occupied by rival clans, as well as by the visual indistinguishability of members of rivaling clans: they all wear the same Made-in-China sports T-shirts bearing the logo of a random sports team (England, Cincinnati, etc.). Clan membership remains invisible and so does any sense of national identity: the national identity of Italians, Colombians and Chinese living on the periphery of the post-industrial is completely overshadowed by the common conditions of economic disenfranchisement in which they all live.
The film’s multifocal structure of intersecting narratives and alternating points of view creates a sense of disorientation, with the camera penetrating various spaces to develop several parallel stories without providing us with a sense of the overarching story. Gomorrah’s labyrinthine narrative logic underscores the complexity of the system of economic relationships that constitute the camorra. As the camera travels within Scampia’s circumscribed space, moving from one floor to the next, from one apartment to the next, occasionally leaving Scampia’s residential area to travel to the marshes nearby, only to circle back to the densely populated residential buildings, it depicts Scampia as a web from which no one can escape.
Luciano, a fish seller, lives with his family in a colorful Neapolitan neighborhood with its little square—a welcoming communal space bathed in light and warmth, always full of life—a fountain, the local café, a street market, colorful laundry hung out to dry, kids playing in the street: this is a place that seems immune to the relentless march of modernization and globalization. In contrast to Gomorrah’s male-dominated world (the five intersecting stories all feature male characters) Reality is primarily populated by women and children, while men are conspicuously missing from the picture. Reality depicts a Gemeinschaft matriarchal society (in which the principal subject of conversation or activity seems to be food or male-female relationships—the camera keeps coming back to comforting shots of a group of women cooking and talking in the kitchen) structured around women’s practical, popular wisdom, in opposition to Gomorrah’s typical Gesellschaft patriarchal society dominated by violence and crime.
Just as in Gomorrah Garrone explores the subordination of primary interpersonal relationships to secondary business/mafia relationships, in Reality he juxtaposes the ‘authentic’ Gemeinschaft relationships between people, rooted in long cohabitation and a shared history based on trust, with the perversion of interpersonal relationships by modern phenomena like reality TV. However, here the similarities between the two films end. In Reality Naples represents the kind of Gemeinschaft society that in Gomorrah becomes corrupted or perverted by the superimposition of corporate/mafia/Gesellschaft relationships that take the form of ‘transactions’ (money transactions as well as enemy clan killings and drug sales) over interpersonal relationships. Juxtaposing Reality’s Naples with the world of the camorra in Gomorrah makes explicit the central tension in both films (where it is treated differently both in terms of tone and genre) between tradition and modernity. Gomorrah deals with a problem exacerbated by modernization and globalization (drugs) but presents the consequences of this modernization as a regression to tribal/clan politics and to an archaic, almost hunter-gatherer way of life. Reality, however, holds on to a romanticized, idealized image of a Gemeinschaft society based on a traditional notion of national identity that remains in conflict with the effects of modernization (such as reality TV).
In Gommorah there are no quintessentially Italian landscapes steeped in national history. Departing from a long cinematic tradition of equating Italy with Rome, Gomorrah explores a deliberately decentered landscape: here ‘Italy’ is not Rome, not even Naples, but a random stretch of anonymous looking, dilapidated buildings and dirt roads that could be found in any country. By contrast, in Reality Garrone seems to be fantasizing nostalgically about a world that seems to be on the brink of extinction, a world of small, village-like communities, uncorrupted by modernization and globalization, a quintessentially ‘Italian’ place that has preserved its authentic national identity. Reality posits Naples as a morally and spiritually privileged realm, a source of ‘proper’ or ‘authentic’ national identity, and contrasts it with the industrial, developed North (Rome) as a place of moral decrepitude and inauthenticity and reified national identity. The film thus endorses a conservative nationalistic discourse of national identity rooted in the nation’s ethno-scape, ethno-history and ethno-memory and ‘corrupted’ by postmodern developments such as reality TV.
To conclude, while Garrone’s Gomorrah bears out Marlow-Man’s claim about the reworking of the Neapolitan Formula in the New Neapolitan Cinema, his later film, Reality, appears to revive the Neapolitan Formula rather than criticize it. What are we to make of this shift in Garrone’s film career? Only the future can tell.
Written by Temenuga Trifonova