'Camorra': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A moody and thought-provoking reflection.

Using only archive footage, documentarian Francesco Patierno describes the beginning of the Neapolitan Camorra like a fiction film.

As atmospheric as a narrative film and as thought-provoking as a seriously wrought documentary, Camorra retraces the origins of large-scale criminality in the territory around Naples with melancholy fatalism. Scanning a socially degraded area made familiar in films and on TV series like Matteo Garrone’s ruthless Gomorrah, Neapolitan-born writer-director Francesco Patierno reveals the foundations for today’s violent mess. He artfully weaves the history of the Camorra clans from period footage in the RAI-TV videotheque to create an extraordinarily authentic work that is gripping and more than a little depressing.

Its fictional feel is not the only thing that distinguishes Camorra from journalistic TV docs. Patierno puts forward a clearly formulated hypothesis that is stated twice, at the beginning and the end of the film. It holds that the Camorra got its foothold by organizing the disorder of a society abandoned by the Italian state and taking the place of a much-needed social revolution. With the advent of the Camorra — which can be compared to the Sicilian Mafia, with certain important differences — the terrible living conditions of the population improved, much to the satisfaction of the authorities, who saw a popular rebellion averted. Where the state was unable or unwilling to help, crime lords rose up and generated thousands of jobs which keep the wolf from the door of many homes even today — but at a tremendous price.

Set between the late 1960s and early 1990s, the film is just the opposite of preachy and lets the audience draw its own conclusions. It is surprisingly easy to follow, given the director’s decision not to label anything and to insert a bare minimum of explanatory titles. Like Patierno’s prize-winning doc Naples ’44, based on a book by Norman Lewis and released in the U.S. last year by First Run, Camorra vividly brings to life the heart-rending poverty of the post-war city. Interviews with young boys, some with angel faces and others with ski masks hiding their features from the law, underline how socially accepted it was to fall into a life of crime. First came the meager family income they earned selling contraband cigarettes; then car theft and juvenile detention centers, while they worked their way up the ladder into drugs, the protection racket and violent gang warfare.

The police turn a blind eye. In a revealing scene, the city mayor is interviewed and candidly states that to arrest contraband vendors would mean casting thousands of families into abject poverty and into the arms of organized crime. But that seems to happen anyway as the system gradually ensnares them.

The Camorra, it is stated, is not the Mafia. At least in the beginning, there was no godfather and no cupola running the show, only a loose collection of individual clans who squabbled over territory. Patierno and his co-screenwriter Isaia Sales describe how, with the booming drug market in the early 1960s, gangsters from Sicily and Marseille appeared on the scene; only they had the capital to finance ships from South America. The Neapolitans had no choice but to become subordinates of the Mafia. At the same time, the old mafioso honor system fell into disuse and gangland killings became frequent and indiscriminate.

The last part of the film focuses on one of the most colorful characters to spring up in this period and become the undisputed boss of the entire Camorra. Raffaele Cutolo (who is still in prison today, serving four life sentences) is captured by the RAI cameras in a courtroom where he is on trial, smiling beatifically and chatting to the journalist without a shadow of worry. He is dapperly dressed in expensive designer clothes and brushes off accusations of murder and extortion as being of little importance. He has reason to gloat: When the Red Brigades kidnapped local politician Ciro Cirillo, the authorities came crawling to him to intervene. He soon got the pol released, in exchange for a huge ransom and a series of favors from the police and magistrates.

The terrible beauty of the black-and-white images is heightened by haunting Neapolitan music, so pervasive it dictates the mood of almost every scene.

Production company: Todos Contentos y Yo Tambien Napoli
Director: Francesco Patierno
Screenwriters: Francesco Patierno, Isaia Sales
Editor: Maria Fantastica Valmori
Music: Meg
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Sconfini)
World sales: GA&A Gioia Avvantaggiato

70 minutes