Thursday, October 9, 2008

EIFF: Gomorrah at the end of the festival

The Edmonton International Film Festival has been over for several days now, and yet I continue to churn out these entries, trying desperately to write about as many films as possible before they are all consigned to the graveyard of memory. Even as I type these words, I can feel the casket closing on Let the Right One In, a Swedish coming-of-age tale spiced up with vampires. That’s an oversimplification of what is actually an interesting little movie, but it has been lost in the blur of films I’ve seen since. I’ve given up on writing anything about it, save for these few words, which I offer in the way of apology and epitaph. Its sense of privileged intimacy reminded me of a secret shared between friends, and so what it said to me shall remain untold.

The reason I couldn’t find time to say anything else about Let the Right One In is for a simple and welcome reason—I was too busy watching other films. I began writing about this year’s festival with some anxiety about EIFF’s usual fondness for bottom-of-the-barrel crowd-pleasers, and the short film selection seemed to bear this out. The bulk of the short films I saw stuck mainly to a glib-cute tone that quickly grows wearisome when it dominates all other styles. There were a couple of stylish allegories that offered some relief, if not genuine satisfaction (The Eye and Next Floor), and at least one lovely, oblique mood piece (The 12th Alley, a lonely metaphysical bowling alley soliloquy), but these were the rare exceptions.

More common were variations on clich├ęd ideas, such as stories of kids trying to get their ball back from an elderly person (baseball in the case of A Pickle; soccer in the case of Because There Are Things You Never Forget) or the usual bland comedies about the war of the sexes (which probably covers about half of the short films at the festival). Still, the low point had to be From Little Things Big Things Grow, which is four minutes of hyper-cuteness that could spur even the softest heart to infanticide. School children dance as they sing the title song, a cheesy piece of self-esteem celebration that includes lyrics where the children all say what they want to be when they grow up. I appreciated the specificity of the kid who said he wants to be a graphic designer; I’m a little more concerned about the one who said she wants to be a mermaid. Trust in yourself, and you can do anything, even become an imaginary creature. That’s one to grow on, but I’m not sure what it’s doing in a film festival.

Despite my disappointment with this year’s slate of short films, the features offered some surprising gems. EIFF tends not to stray too far from the middle of the road, but they do occasionally swerve precariously close to the ditch. But to be fair, there were even some fine films that were a perfect match for the festival’s populist sensibilities. Consider Man on Wire, an excellent documentary by any measure, but also essentially an inspirational movie about a man following his dream. Still, it is not saccharine or condescending, but rather an elusive, moving film, and proof that a film can fulfill the crowd-pleaser mandate of EIFF without forsaking craft or ingenuity. Which is really just my way of saying that there is no excuse for pap like From Little Things Big Things Grow.

You may ask what is four minutes of discomfort in exchange for hours of pleasure, and you would be right—besides, part of the fun of watching short film programs is seeing stuff you normally would never go near. You may also ask what sort of misanthrope sneers at cute, cheerful children, and all I can say is now you know. But if am I to truly do this festival justice, how can I end on a such sour note? A true crowd-pleaser should end on some sort of positive, optimistic high. To that end, allow me to present one final review, this time for Gomorrah, a dense, powerful Italian mob epic directed Matteo Garrone.

Gomorrah

Let me be clear on one thing: this is not a typical mob story. Near the beginning of the film, Garrone shows a couple of teenagers quoting dialogue from Scarface, as if to emphasize how far he strays from the usual glamorization of violence and wealth found in films about organized crime. Even the opening scene—a series of gruesome murders in a tanning salon—teases the audience with a promise of violence that is never quite fulfilled. The scene begins by mocking the vanity of these middle-aged, pudgy mobsters preening over their looks, but the sight of their dead bodies in the buzzing blue light of the tanning beds is a chilly taste of what is to come. There is no glorious final shoot-out for these men—death is ugly, swift, and brutal.

The reason for this stark contrast to the typical mob film is probably because Garrone has a very real target in this film: the Camorra, the oldest and one of the largest organized crime cartels in Italy. This isn’t some starry-eyed mob movie (as the teenagers quoting Scarface seem to believe they are starring in), but a drama that draws its purpose from real conditions. This is still fiction, but it is tied intimately to real problems posed by the Camorra.

The film is built out of multiple stories, most of which centre on characters from a single apartment complex, and the layers of walkways that make up the building mirror the various parallel narrative threads that run throughout the film. Some stories might seem almost recognizable, like that of the grocery boy who begins working for the Camorra despite his mother’s misgivings, or the two aforementioned Scarface-quoting teenagers who steal from the Camorra and openly defy its power. Others are more unique, such as the story of a tailor who secretly teaches workers at a Chinese garment factory, risking his life by helping one of the Camorra’s rivals. Another tale follows a young man who works as an assistant for one of the Camorra’s garbage disposal bosses, who roams from site to site, scrounging up new dumping grounds for dangerous waste.

None of these threads connect in any obvious way. Fate is not hurtling these people through space and time towards some sort of grand unity in the end; the Camorra has replaced fate. You defy the Camorra and you die, or else you join it and you die. The characters are linked through the Camorra, so that it becomes the great unifier in this film, the only unity possible in this poor place. It is entrenched in tradition and pervades the social order. In a telling shot, we see the grocery boy running drugs for the Camorra on one of the walkways in the apartment complex, and then the camera drifts to a wedding procession passing on the walkway below.

The film is filled with such striking moments. When the drivers responsible for transporting toxic waste refuse to work after one of their own is badly burned after a spill, the Camorra’s man rounds up a bunch of young children and tells them to each pick a truck. Hustling about in a game mood, he gathers cushions to allow them to see over the steering wheel, and Garrone shows the man triumphantly watching a procession of heavy machinery driven by children. It’s an absurd, comical sight, but obviously disquieting as well. Even better is a scene where a dying man lies on his bed, crucifix above his head, rasping “euro” over and over again, invoking a new god as capricious and cruel as the one of old.

There’s a grim humour to such images, even as they reveal the sick social order that has arisen because of the Camorra. Most of the characters struggle with finding a way out from under the Camorra’s influence, but the organization is simply too pervasive. It controls so many aspects of the economy that there doesn’t seem to be any way of leaving one Camorra business without somehow, even inadvertently, joining another. Indeed, the Camorra is the economy in this film, blurring the line between capitalism and crime until the two seem interchangeable. As average workers watch their savings and jobs disappear while executives get multi-million-dollar severance packages, this idea rings true no matter where you are. It might even be—dare I say it?—a bit of a crowd-pleaser.

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