This sleek and brutal film, like Roberto Saviano’s book on which it is based, is a work of docu-fiction, but it is only a light transposition of the everyday reality for Neapolitans and their ongoing relationship with the Camorra (while the Sicilian Mafia/Cosa Nostra are the best known, they are not the only Italian criminal organisation; others include the aforementioned, the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta and the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita). The film traces a number of different individuals through their generally tragic trajectories through the poorer echelons of Neapolitan society (though while much of the ‘action on the ground’ happens on the streets, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Camorra and other similar organizations exist at every level, including the highest, of Italian politics and commerce - in this film this is evident for the world of high fashion in particular, though in a way which can also be considered representative).
In this world of scummy, decaying concrete high-rise projects (Italian criminal organizations have a lengthy history with the construction industry, and concrete in particular), the Camorra are so deeply implicated at all levels of society that the attempt to remain disentangled, or worse, to disentangle oneself, may be impossible, except at the price of one’s life (not to mention the lives of one's family and friends). Rampant poverty and the standard social and economic alienation of urban underclasses only contribute to these patterns. While we are fairly familiar with this kind of narrative from films such as City of God or La Haine and television series like The Wire, it remains shocking to see the scabrous underbelly of an affluent European society revealed when the rest of us are more used to the Tuscany of tourist dreams and the Italian self-image as bella gente (although in Italy the social and racial tensions, sense of doomed inevitability, and corruption which permeate the society depicted here are equally apparent, and equally repellent, in politics and the media). The film itself is both violent and viscerally beautiful, a treat for aficionados of post-industrial decay and tawdry glamour, and anyone who has visited Naples will recognize, if not the scenery, the atmosphere greasy with fear, history and opportunity.
Italian criminal organisations in themselves are a fascinating subject – some of the books that I’d recommend on the topic include Peter Robb’s Midnight In Sicily, Toby Jones’ The Dark Heart of Italy and John Dickie’s indispensible Cosa Nostra, as well as the moving documentary Excellent Cadavers (based on the book of the same name), telling the story of heroic anti-Mafia judges and martyrs Giovanni Falcone & Paolo Borsellino - and I’m about to embark on David Lane’s Into The Heart of the Mafia – and they are important not only as interesting histories in their own right, but in any attempt to understand contemporary and historical Italy – not to mention all countries of Italian immigration, but in particular the USA and various South American nations.
The representation of the Mafia in documentary and fiction itself is worth considering, with all its connections with dietrologia (‘behind-ology,’ the Italian obsession with conspiracies and ulterior motivations for action, one which is hardly surprising given the history of moments and organizations such as the Calvi case, the P2 ‘shadow government,’ and the murderous intrigues of Rightist and Leftist terrorist groups during the anni di piombo, the ‘years of lead’). This sense of shadowy manipulation from behind the scenes is reflected in the Italian giallo (and, perhaps, deflected in the love for the Manichaean Western) – but there have also been (rare) Italian cultural figures (such as Dario Fo) who have more openly addressed the issue - in particular the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia in works such as Il Giorno della Civetta ('Day of the Owl') and Il Contesto (published in English as 'Equal Danger'), which give a sense of the Borgesian, truth-defying mazes within mazes which are encountered when one delves into this subject. But the semi-fictionalised presentation given here - in the emerging Italian tradition of the Unidentified Narrative Object - is a novelty; one, however, which does not impede the seriousness of the topic at hand (Saviano himself has been subject to serious death threats and has been granted a permanent police escort).
Like the film itself, the present Italian situation can be seen as a tragedy garbed in beautiful raiments - particularly while a corrupt and well-connected Berlusconi continues to prosecute his war against the judiciary, the meaningful Left, and the independent media.