Unusually – and refreshingly – for a mafia film, Garrone adopts a bottom-up perspective. It’s also a youthful one: most of his main players are on the cusp of adulthood. There’s serious-minded Totò, barely a teen, for whom maturity is arriving fast. In another world, Totò would have a paper round; in this one, he’s training to be a drug dealer. There’s the slightly older, keen Roberto, hired in bad faith by Franco, who trades in the disposal of toxic waste (a performance of Teflon charm from Toni Servillo). Less sympathetic but equally tragic are Marco and Ciro, two hotheads obsessed with De Palma’s ‘Scarface’ (allowing Garrone to stick two fingers up to Hollywood’s idea of the mob).
It’s not all about kids: factory manager Pasquale comes to regret moonlighting for a Chinese rival, while ageing stooge Don Ciro struggles to remain a faceless mafia bureaucrat.
What 39-year-old Matteo Garrone has done is take a sprawling, heavily researched novel about the web of Neapolitan crime by young writer Roberto Saviano (now under police protection) and turn it into a more focused, multi-stranded drama about how ordinary lives and ambitions are impinged upon in a society where the parameters of business, justice and everyday life are heavily defined and warped by the influence of organised crime.
He tells all this with an unfussy style, with a documentarist’s eye for the authentic, both for people or places, and a dramatist’s urge for the tragic and the universal. Such is the speed of the storytelling and its complexity that relationships and events are sometimes as muddled as our understanding of them, yet that’s the welcome price of rejecting over-simplification and distortion.
Garrone shot his film in the area that he depicts. You couldn’t fake those locations (a crumbling housing estate that looks like a grand cruiseliner after a naval battle; a marshy, ghostly coastline) or the tough, leathery peasant faces of some of the film’s supporting hoodlums.