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Violence terrorizes some people into submission and seduces others in Matteo Garrone's crime movie Gomorrah, based on the non-fiction best-seller by Roberto Saviano. ((Seville Pictures/Maximum Films))

It’s too soon to herald the arrival of an Italian cinematic Renaissance after years of mainly mediocre comedies. But two new films – the brilliant political portrait Il Divo and the unsentimental Mafia drama Gomorrah – suggest that there may be grounds for hope.

Il Divo and Gomorrah have much in common. Both are products of relatively young (under-40) Neapolitans, both have been contentious blockbusters in Italy, both won runner-up awards at Cannes, and both provide unflinching looks at the squalid underbelly of one of the world’s most romanticized countries. Given that the author of the book on which Gomorrah is based is at the top of the Neapolitan mafia’s hit list and three actors in the film have been arrested for criminal association, Italy may well have spawned a new genre. Call it neo-realissimo – neo-extremely real.

Gomorrah, directed by Matteo Garrone, was adapted from an exposé of the same name written two years ago by then-27-year-old Roberto Saviano. Its title is a Biblical pun on Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia. The book was a massive bestseller in Italy, though its success – and that of the film – has made Saviano’s life hell. The young writer has been under 24-hour police protection from the Camorra and recently announced his plans to leave Italy in the hopes of living a normal life.

Italy may have spawned a new genre. Call it neo-realissimo – neo-extremely real.

Filmmaker Garrone teases out some main characters from Saviano’s research and constructs interweaving narratives that explore how violence terrorizes some people into submission and pulls others towards its power. Several young boys fall into the guns and gangs as though they’re playing at being cowboys; a beleaguered tailor risks teaching his trade to a rival Chinese crime syndicate to make a few extra bucks; a garbage dealer moves between "legitimate" business and the literally toxic underworld of waste dumping.

Garrone used local actors (some of whom turned out to be Camorra members) and shot most of the scenes close up. Coupled with the absence of a soundtrack, the effect is real and unrelentingly tense. Gomorrah eschews the fascination with Mafia aesthetics and ironies that have saturated American depictions of organized crime, from the Godfather trilogy to The Sopranos. Despite the wads of cash that endlessly change hands, trappings of wealth are nowhere to be seen. The Scampia neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples where the violent oligarchies are based is all crumbling concrete and claustrophobic squalor.   

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The film Gomorrah demonstrates how criminal organizations effectively rule entire neighbourhoods in Naples, Italy. ((Seveille Pictures/Maximum Films))

Gomorrah is a tough movie to watch in Italy. That’s not just because the stench of the garbage crisis in Naples, caused by both Mafia interests and government collusion, still hangs in the air. It’s also because you can’t leave the film without feeling a sense of despair about the future of the country. As anyone in Italy can tell you, criminal organisations only thrive in the absence of a solid, legitimate state. For decades Italian governments have tolerated – and at times conspired with – organized crime. While packed theatres show that Italians have been hungry to see the squalid reality depicted in Gomorrah, there’s also been criticism from everyone from starlets to writers that the movie only shows the negative side of the country.

Some right-wing journalists have also alleged that Roberto Saviano’s anti-Mafia crusade is about money and fame. It’s a dangerous insinuation and one that’s been used over the years to marginalize those brave enough to criticize criminal interests. The fact that this young writer now has to leave Italy to walk about as freely as Mafia gang members do is a shameful reflection of the lack of serious interest in ridding the country of organized crime.

Just as politically damning is Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo, a nearly two-hour-long portrait of Giulio Andreotti, Italy’s most prominent (and, so far, longest-lasting) politician. For decades, Andreotti served as the leader of the dominant Christian Democratic Party. The film chronicles his decline, starting with his short-lived seventh government in the early ‘90s, during the time he was accused of Mafia association and of having ordered the murder of a journalist.

I suspect that what’s most disturbing to many Italians who dislike the film is the fact that a younger generation director has dared to portray a still widely-revered elder with the sting of J’accuse.

Il Divo swings with flair between the theatrical and the documentary. At one point, Andreotti’s cronies emerge from chauffeur-driven cars for a meeting at his office in Rome. An eerie soundtrack of whistles and helicopter noise transforms the slow-motion scene into a chilling Western-style lead-up to a shootout. Elsewhere, frenetic violin music underscores the historic chaos of Italian politics.

Director Sorrentino is clearly fascinated with the grotesque aspect of power. Toni Servillo, a virtuoso on par with Bruno Ganz or Robert DeNiro, plays Andreotti. (Servillo is unrecognizable from his role as the rumpled garbage dealer in Gomorrah.) Incorporating everything from Andreotti’s awkward hand gestures to the aphorisms he was renowned for uttering, Servillo’s rendition of the politician is a stylised master performance in the dissemblance of a political expert.  It’s touched nerves in Italy. Those who knew or think they knew the politician generally hate it. When I mentioned how exciting I found Servillo’s performance to an Andreotti biographer, he could barely contain his scorn. "He didn’t even get his fingers right!" he cried. "Andreotti has long, elegant fingers and Servillo has little stubs!"

I suspect that what’s most disturbing to many Italians who dislike the film is the fact that a younger generation director has dared to portray a still widely-revered elder with the sting of J’accuse.

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Italian politician Giulio Andreotti (Toni Servillo) is accused of Mafia association and of having ordered the murder of a journalist in Paulo Sorrention's Il Divo. ((BetaFilm/Mongrel Media) )

On the one hand, Sorrentino does so by carefully sticking to the facts – dozens of them. Characters, dates, scenes of political inquests and courtroom drama are introduced in machine-gun succession, with no exposition for outsiders. In this sense, Il Divo takes a quintessential Italian communication trait – the shorthand and inside allusions favoured by political commentators – and hits fast-forward. The unremitting sequence of events also accentuates another characteristic of Italian politics. As a long-time journalist friend used to say, "Leave Italy for a week and the political scene is unrecognisable; leave the country for a year and you’ll find it exactly as you left it."

But it’s Sorrentino’s stance with respect to the public figure’s private motivations that has triggered much of the outcry in Italy. One of the movie’s most powerful scenes is a Machiavellian monologue that Andreotti delivers near the end. In it, the politician proclaims that the truth hurts Italians and that it was necessary to use malevolent means in order to do the country good.

The real Andreotti, now almost 90, briefly dropped his impenetrable façade and angrily pronounced the film the mean-spirited product of a scoundrel. He would have done well to remember one of his own favourite aphorisms: "A pensare male si fa peccato, ma spesso ci si indovina." Thinking badly of others is a sin, but often you guess right.

Megan Williams is a Canadian writer living in Rome and the author of the short-story collection Saving Rome.