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An offer you can't refuse

The glamour gets scrubbed off the Mob in this Italian drama

<strong>Gomorrah (15)</strong> dir: Ma

The godfather of all Mafia films is, naturally, The Godfather, but it has been hard for subsequent Mob stories to escape its influence. However, the new Italian picture Gomorrah, which focuses on the Neapolitan Camorra rather than the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, proves that there is more than one way to decapitate a horse. I'm speaking metaphorically: the days when organised criminals would put in the effort to stash the head of a prize thoroughbred beneath a man's bedclothes are no more.

I can't help feeling that something has died in all of us when a mobster can be murdered without recourse to piano wire or a gun cleverly secreted in a public lavatory. And where is the aftercare these days? When Luca Brasi was killed in the first Godfather, his assassins were thoughtful enough to Fed-Ex a plump sea bass to his employees to let them know he was dead. It's that sort of touch that makes all the difference; I mean, these people aren't animals, right? But should you be unfortunate enough to fall foul of the Camorra, your family won't receive so much as an anchovy by way of notice that you are sleeping with the fishes.

That said, Gomorrah does kick off with an impressive massacre at a tanning salon. I always knew those places were trouble, ever since Jade Goody's ex-boyfriend opened one not far from where I live. This grisly scene confirmed my suspicions, although there is an advantage to grabbing a tan if you're considering an open casket.

The slaughter is just part of the Camorra's daily grind in Naples and Caserta, and it is to the credit of the writer-director Matteo Garrone, working from the non-fiction book by Roberto Saviano, that the film captures the extent to which the horrors of organised crime are absorbed into ordinary life without diminishing their impact. This he does by keeping a rein on hysteria; even when the characters are running amok, his camera stays cool. The script, which interweaves five storylines, concentrates our attention on the infrastructure of crime - we see how far and deep the Camorra's tentacles reach, and how asphyxiating its grasp can be.

Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is the only character here who would be at home in The Godfather. This old-style bagman drops off payments to the families of imprisoned mobsters, but is caught in the crossfire when his clan loses control of its territory. On the same housing estate where he carries out his errands is the 13-year-old delivery boy Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), whose dream of serving the Camorra comes true after he retrieves a gun. Then there are the weaselly Scarface wannabes Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), who are so excited about the weapons they've looted that they audition their stolen Kalashnikovs wearing only their underwear. Talk about declining standards. You'd never have caught Al Pacino fondling a Beretta in his pants.

Gomorrah also visits Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), a tailor collaborating with his employer's competitors. And there's Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), a graduate who has to swallow his principles when he lands a job in toxic waste management. I liked this plot-line the most, partly because it doesn't overplay its neat central idea that crime literally poisons the environment down to the water table, but also because it puts into perspective my guilt about not washing out those Marmite jars for recycling last week.

Our brains have become so adept at piecing together fragmented narratives in everything from Hana-bi and Crash to Reservoir Dogs and Babel, that it is disorienting to discover that the storylines in Gomorrah are linked only thematically, and don't require any home assembly. The younger characters are all burrowing their way into Mob business, while the old hands come a cropper in the uncertain climate. Few of the characters emerge untainted - unlike Garrone, whose appalled analysis shares with The Sopranos an aversion to bloodlust. This year's Cannes jury awarded the film the Grand Prix, and anyone who sees it will be likely to agree.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks