starring Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchettino, Salvatore Ruocco, Vincenzo Fabricino
screenplay by Maurizio Braucci & Ugo Chiti & Gianni Di Gregorio & Matteo Garrone & Massimo Gaudioso & Roberto Saviano, based on the book by Saviano
directed by Matteo Garrone
starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor
screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup
directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
by Walter Chaw Dropping us in the middle of Italian slum Scampia, itself smack dab in the middle of nothing, Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah (Gomorra) is the Hud of gangster flicks, all deglamourized, harsh, expressionist stripping-away of illusions and idealism to reveal the gasping, grasping emptiness underneath. Like Hud, the source of that idealism is years of cinema supporting a romanticized iconography: the American western in Martin Ritt's film, the collected works of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese in Garrone's peek inside the ways of this thing of ours. Unlike Hud, there's no intimation of a "happy" ending for the sociopaths of Gomorrah--no feeling that for whatever the cost to a normalized (idealized?) existence, the outcasts and opportunists living their lives in imitation of Tony Montana are doomed to their tough-guy surfaces and the anonymous deaths predicted for them during a brutal prologue. Non-narrative and populated by a non-professional cast of locals and unusual suspects, the picture, however steeped in naturalism, is finally a formalist piece about as free of structure as Sartre--and every bit as meticulous. This "No Exit" (and the French title of Sartre's play fascinatingly translates, when applied to a discussion of a film, as "In Camera") and its unlocked oubliette is Scampia: The players in organized crime are imprisoned there by choice, trapped by the validation they desire from one another.
Gomorrah is about the impossibility of a solution to the Camorra crime syndicate's hold on Scampia and, by extension, the intractability of societal corruption now that every semblance of idealism has been beaten from us. The film follows five separate stories as a pair of chuckleheads (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone) gains the courage from the acquisition of an automatic-weapons cache to wage war against a local Jabba; a young grocery delivery boy (Salvatore Abruzzese) makes the rounds; a deal is struck to dump waste on gang property; an older mobster (Gianfelice Imparato) drops payoffs around town to the larded gentry; and a mob-owned tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) undertakes a secret mission to train a rival Chinese sweatshop. Throughout runs the thread that the Camorra is shitting where it sleeps, poisoning Naples body and soul, with--and here's the damnable part of it--the mute consent of the people serving as their own willing executioners.
It's impossible for me to view Gomorrah without attaching to it the late-twentieth century American phenomenon of our middle and lower classes voting against their well-being for the promise of supernatural, imaginary rewards in the slavish worship of Puritan traditions. More's the point that Gomorrah is unusually resonant because it captures an existential crisis of complete hopelessness, of being trapped in ankle-deep mud (quite literally in a sequence where two assassins find themselves in a sticky wicket) with no hope of release. Garrone resists making any one aspect of his picture beautiful in any way (the bloodletting is grave and abrupt--rude, even), while the rat's maze of Scampia has the sewn-shut, fenced-in quality of an Escher conundrum. His film isn't a docudrama about the enduring nature of the human spirit in the midst of squalor and in the face of tragedy, but rather a war photographer's journal, taken at ground zero of the essential, inescapable tragedy of being human.
Which is why Danny Boyle's frivolous, exploitive, essentially unforgivable Slumdog Millionaire is such a blight. Nobody likes a downer, and sure enough Boyle's latest folly is an uplifting piece of crap that combines two of our favourite pastimes: winning the lottery and cultural obliviousness. If Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy were contemporaries of Leni Riefenstahl, rest assured they would have made a happy-go-lucky triumph of the will piece starring the involuntary residents of Auschwitz in the world's most inappropriate game of "You Bet Your Life". It's the sort of film that wins awards this time of year because it's the sort of film that encourages audiences to applaud themselves for their tolerance of the Other from the safety of a theatre full of people of the exact same socio-cultural strata. It's cool that Jamal (Dev Patel) watches his mom die from rebar and swims in a septic hole for a movie star's autograph, because such horrific ordeals have prepped him to win a whole lotta rupees on the India edition of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". Too facile to describe it this way? Consider the climactic moment when he's asked the name of Dumas's third musketeer and how he flashes to a time he neglected the opportunity to learn it properly in school because he's delinquent; no matter, he'll use a lifeline. If Slumdog Millionaire isn't a racist melodrama that uses real misery and human degradation as the backdrop for a fairytale of how everything works out in the end (and it is), then it's a movie that says the key to escaping the hell of privation and a complete lack of hope for the future isn't betterment through education, but winning a goddamned Western game show.
The popular choice is to applaud the picture for its story of a little boy orphaned in the cess of Mumbai pulling himself up by his bootstraps with pluck and an unswerving refusal to follow in the criminal footsteps of his more pragmatic brother (the one who sells Jamal's hard-won autographed photo because he was given a good price--no head in the clouds, this guy)--and no wonder, since it's a lot nicer to get jerked-off than to allow that it's possible for Jamal to make the right choices and still not end up with a girl on his arm and a kajillion bucks in his pocket. Wouldn't true uplift involve him understanding that his path is without material reward yet choosing it anyway? It's telling that the key point in Jamal's moral development arrives after he's already won half his eventual plunder. The film is essentially It's a Wonderful Life as re-imagined in that great SNL skit where George Bailey gets everything coming to him and beats the ever-living shit out of Mr. Potter upon retrieving the stolen money.
Slumdog Millionaire is the type of film that depicts the horror of slum residents washing and drying their clothes right next to speeding trains as a kaleidoscopic, ethnic, patchwork mosaic; the scenes leading up to Jamal's mother's murder are an idyllic tableau of women doing their wash, exoticized and idealized. Boyle's visual style is all bombast and ego, zooming racks and aerial shots that minimize an audience's need to confront the realities of life in a third world ghetto. When all else fails, here comes more of the slo-mo, retard tingle attached to a long look at beautiful inamorata Latika (Frieda Pinto). Paired unhappily with dogme95 Anthony Dod Mantle's trademark ugly cinematography, the result is this jigsaw monster of a movie that seems to recognize the hideousness of its subject before forcing itself to plaster on a jester's smirk--the visual equivalent of a nice pat on the head. No doubt someone's already formulated the argument that it's just a harmless allegory of one illiterate urchin's predestined rise (Boyle reprises his own repugnant Millions in that sense), but a closing credits sequence that hijacks Bollywood's musical extravaganza with the entire cast of extras suggests otherwise. The cruellest irony of Slumdog Millionaire is that, like (wait for it) the also- impossibly-popular and instantly-dated Juno, it's an archconservative message that causes liberals to feel inordinately pleased with themselves.
Sure Mumbai is a pit, the product of an economic boom that has widened the gulf between the haves and have-nots--but Christ, it's so colourful there, and the people are so plucky and resourceful! Because my first screening of the flick coincided with the Thanksgiving terrorist attacks in Mumbai that left over a hundred people dead, the onscreen title identifying the movie's setting gave me a bit of a shiver. It's not much of a surprise, in hindsight, that the Mumbai presented in Slumdog Millionaire would be the preferable image--the Sarah MacLachlan-scored, sanitized-for-your-protection version of the twin towers falling down on this week's very special "Oprah". Shit, it's almost beautiful. The argument is that there's a moral problem with portraying human degradation and desperation as objets d'art for the blissful contemplation of the voyeuristic middle class. Described with brilliant succinctness by one Indian academic as "poverty porn," the picture raises the same questions of representation as a Diane Arbus or Shelby Lee Adams exhibition--with the crucial difference being that neither Arbus nor Adams ever tried to make their subjects easy to consume.
Slumdog Millionaire is the worst kind of exploitation. Far beyond paternalism, its racism invites the marginalization of an entire culture, relegating India to this feel-good pastiche delivered in a gaudy, candy-coloured package promising the literal deus ex machina of Faith as the path to hot chicks and cold cash. Bollywood produced over 800 movies last year--this one, directed by an Englishman with European backers, is what the West has as its 2008 glimpse of the second-most populous place on the planet. What sticks with Gomorrah is the short lifespan of dreaming; what sticks with Slumdog Millionaire is that life is but a dream. Sh-boom, sh-boom. I'm reminded of this line from a favourite Anne Sexton poem: "The glimmering creatures are full of lies./They are eating each other. They are overfed" In this context, that means once awards season has come and gone, there won't be an inch left for contemplation on the mantle. As with every nonnutritious piffle hastily-consumed, the guilty reflection will come in the long hours after. Originally published: February 20, 2009.