The Critical Reception of ‘Gomorra’ Abroad
When it comes to Gomorra’s reception, we need to acknowledge that Saviano’s literary sensation and Garrone’s film are deeply intertwined – especially in Italy. Reviews mostly praised the director for effectively mirroring the book’s investigative tone into the realistic, almost documentary-like style and aesthetics. The film also rekindled the national debate initiated by Saviano’s works, immediately gaining a significant political and symbolic charge.
Looking outside the Italian borders, that same political and symbolic charge were inevitably filtered and re-packaged when traveling across different countries. Overall, foreign reviews that follow the Cannes Film Festival’s screenings focus on the aesthetic side of the production, bringing the director’s vision and style to the fore – at times connecting it to a broader Italian heritage and traditions of certain kinds of narrative. Once the festival and awards cycle is over, the press tends to expand on the context of the movie, delving into the figure of Roberto Saviano, the film’s investigative work and its impact on the Italian public sphere.
When it comes to presenting and promoting the film to the French audience, France emphasizes prestige by underlying the Grand Prix victory at Cannes, as well as the film aesthetic and authorial value – while its political significance is generally downplayed. Specialized journals praised the author’s vision and the film’s style. In Positif, for instance, Jean A. Gili describes the movie as “a strong work, sophisticated in its abundant endeavor” (n. 569-570, July 2008). Gomorra’s political charge, however, is generally deemed as flawed. Eugenio Renzi, on the Cahiers du Cinéma, underlines the director’s attention for the political and aesthetic power of the image, although “Gomorra’s debut is striking for what it tries (…) Gomorra is even more striking for what it does not try” (n. 634, June 2008). In Première, Gérard Delorme confirms this analysis, noting that, though the film goes beyond mere illustration, “Gomorra lacks context and political perspective”.
Following the success of the movie at Cannes, the press is more enthusiastic, like Jaques Mandelbaum, in Le Monde: “On the levels of both the visual and dramaturgy (…), Garrone fulfills its aim and gives it aesthetic and political significance”.
For the film’s broadcast on Canal+, the TV magazine Télérama mediates between aesthetics and its political charge, presenting the movie as “a wide portrait of the Neapolitan crime world. And even if it is not the subversive manifest that it aspires to be, Gomorra is a very realistic, good gangster movie” – a commentary used as a presentation on Canal VOD.
While in France the focus is on the film per se, Anglophone countries tie it to a broad Italian heritage, triggering a comparison process that looks to the past.
In Great Britain, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw describes it as “a grueling species of neo-realist Italian cinema,” while Empire’s Damon Wise argues that “Two things the Italians do incredibly well are politics and sentiment. The latter explains the rise of Roberto Benigni and his Oscar-winning Life Is Sweet. The former, however, is usually more subtly tucked away – at least until now, because Gomorrah really goes for the jugular.” It should also be noted that the BFI Player significantly presents the movie as the film that started new waves of success, launched “director Garrone onto the international stage (Reality, Tales of Tales), and led to the acclaimed spin-off TV series of the same name, often referred to as Italy’s The Wire.”
This comparison is even more explicit in the United States press, which, however, also re-inserts the film into the context of Hollywood. Here, the film’s presentation by Martin Scorsese is heavily highlighted – and much utilized for the movie’s promotion. In terms of reviews, this support fosters consideration on the differences between Gomorra and the Hollywood tradition of gangster/mafia movies, as Manohla Dargis argues in The New York Times: “Unlike the better-known Sicilian Mafia, which took root in America in the late 19th century and in Hollywood thereafter, the Camorra has never had a significant presence in this country, pop cultural or otherwise. Until now, its reign of terror has been largely in reality and not on the screen, which explains why the world in this film can feel so alien: the movies haven’t yet imagined it.” Therefore, differentiation is the added-value of the film, which is also praised in the same article for its “tableau-like monumentality”.
There is much attention on the true-crime side of the movie, and its real-life consequences. Aside from post-Cannes reviews, trade press magazine continue to follow the news in Italy: in The Hollywood Reporter, Greg Kilday reports that actor Giovanni Venosa, one of the actors, had been arrested on suspicion of real mob activities; in the same magazine, Eric J. Lyman reveals that Gomorra was helping the Italian police track down real organized crime figures. Drawing on Italian newspaper Corriere della sera, he reports that “the film was screened at a Naples prison where inmates in jail for activities related to the Camorra – Naples’ version of the Mafia – recognized one of their own among the film’s cast.”
We can, therefore, see a sort of double-reading of Gomorra in the US: on the one hand, it is seen and presented as something completely new. On the other, it is brought back into the Hollywood mechanisms through the legitimating presence of Martin Scorsese, and the glamorizing effect on real-life Italian “narrative”. And when it comes to OTT, on iTunes and Prime Video Gomorra’s poster presents the movie as “The Greatest Mafia Movie Ever Made” (Boston Herald), once more highlighting the “Martin Scorsese presents” credit.