I thought I would just write a quick word on two Italian movies that have recently hit the theatres: Gomorra, directed by Matteo Garrone (under heavily armed guard), and Il Divo, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (presumably not under heavily armed guard). The former is a cinéma pur account of the day-to-day lives of people living with the drug trade surrounding Naples. The latter is a highly stylized account of the enigmatic Guilio Andreotti, seven-time Prime Minister of Italy in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and suspected friend of the Mafia. The two films go together in my mind not only because I saw them at roughly the same time, but because of the interconnectedness of their stories and the almost exact opposite ways they go about telling them*.
Gomorra takes place in the terraced housing projects, garment factories, and abandoned stone quarries on the outskirts of Naples. This particular area of Italy sees the most drug trafficking of just about anywhere, and just about everyone and everything is implicated in it in some way. Assassinations, getting high, and assorted crime are infused into the minute-by-minute activities of most of the citizens of the area. The film shows, like some less sentimental version of City of God, as much of this as it can. There is so much to take in, so much violence, so much action, so much oppression, that the director has almost no choice** but to take as neutral a stance with his camera as possible.
The sets are the real buildings, and they are amazing (the terraced houses look like a rusted out, faded, harsh sunlight version of Star Trek and Blade Runner mashed up). The sound is loud and brutal, and consists mainly of shouting and gunshots and engines and dripping. Garrone opts to sort of feel his way through the place as plot, rather than trying to impose a plot as such on the place. He leaves it to title cards at the end to tell the audience what all of the violence and oppression and blood and coke really means*** and allows his film to just present a mood. Any traditional “plot element” that one finds in the film exists insofar as it can add to the mood of the place, it seems. We are presented with different characters: here’s an adolescent boy – will he join the Mafia? – here’s a cowardly collections man – will he survive a gunfight? – here’s a pair of longtime friends trying to carve a niche for themselves in the world of crime, etc. None of these are given big enough blocks of time within which the audience could begin to identify with them, and thus they begin to function almost as metonymies for the film itself, pieces of a larger oppressive locale.
All of this, of course, from a cinematic standpoint, is incredibly beautiful. The photography and the sound are first-rate. The place itself, the shells of buildings, the dingy apartments housing illegal Chinese immigrants sewing dresses for the world’s starlets, the shit-encrusted old barns, need little or no dressing. The fact of their existence is plenty. As friend of Running Downhill James Kartsaklis points out, “It’s beautiful, but it’s not like these people are missing out of the beauty of their surroundings; it’s beautiful in a dystopic way. The camera makes the scenes beautiful rather than the other way around.” The setting is beautiful like a shark is beautiful: objectively, but not when you’re half inside the mouth of the damned thing.
Il Divo is a different kettle of fish altogether. Being a biopic, its plot is pretty constrained to the subject at hand, Guilio Andreotti. Andreotti, however, unlike other recent biopic subjects (Harvey Milk, George W. Bush, Marie Antoinette), is notable for his lack of external emotion. He has none of Milk’s appeal, none of W’s creepy charisma, none of Marie Antoinette’s flair for the dramatic. What Andreotti does have is an almost imperceptible arrogant impishness, and his physical appearance, channeled to perfection by the actor, Toni Servillo:
In fact, Andreotti looks, and indeed acts, like none other than Nosferatu. He relies on the strange power of the blankness of his persona to manipulate those around him. And it is not so much manipulation, but more of a nefarious negative reinforcement; he never lets his face betray his emotions, so the people near him talk themselves around and around until they think they’ve appeased him. He very rarely issues directives. So much of his life is internal that Sorrentino has no choice but to resort to a number of voice-overs revealing Andreotti’s thoughts, spilled copiously out onto the pages of his diary.
Why does this matter? Well, in contrast to the externality of Gomorra, Andreotti is anti-cinematic. Everything he says, everything he does, is discreet to the point of being uncomfortable****. He is inscrutable, imperceptible. The film, to compensate, uses the aforementioned voiceovers, wild captions that swing open with car doors, drop with window shades, and float over buildings, music full of dynamic contrasts, lighting that emphasizes how dark everything is, and swooping camera movements. In short, the film is highly expressionistic. The style externalizes the thoughts of the man. It is a matter of taste as to whether this makes Il Divo a more or less effective film than is Gomorra, but the fact that they are so directly opposites and both effective in conveying a sense of mood is interesting enough in and of itself.
*Thanks to James Kartsaklis for the conversation which spurred these thoughts.
**Of course he had a choice, but you know what I mean. He made the right choice, anyhow. Siegfried Kracauer would be proud, and I bet André Bazin would be as well.
***It means that a lot that we associate as being pure and distant from all this is heavily very much like involved in all this.
****There is one notable exception.