Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.
Went up to the Phoenix Picture House last night to see Gomorra, the film based on Roberto Saviano’s novel of the same title. I’d read in the Guardian that the film – which is based on the dealings of the real-life Camorra Neapolitan mafia – had earned him death threats, and see that he’s now decided to leave the country.
It’s not a question of authority; my cinematic education started about ten years too late, and I can’t talk about film with the vocabulary or flexibility of my writing on theatre. I am still processing the film, but my eyes (trained by my father) can at least appreciate the stuntwork & camerawork – both are extraordinary, and the latter (in its treatment of Naples and Venice, to which the film briefly relocates) enjoyably perverse. We don’t see Vesuvius or the Bay of Naples; instead, there are endless shots of abandoned quarries & petrol stations around Scampia, and the stubborn eyelines of the Venice sequence mean that all we see is a lot of dirty water. The stunts are startling, and although the interwebs can’t give me any conclusive information about the age of Salvatore Abruzzese, the actor playing Toto, his repeated shinnings up drainpipes, over fences and railings convince me that the laws prohibiting stunts by minors have to be different in Italy.
Another thing that struck me was the masculine aesthetic in the film – an unspoken, tantalising, even comic exploration of machismo. The film (backed by a pumping Eurotrash soundtrack that for UK ears is more commonly associated with gay clubs than gangsters) opens with closeups of middle-aged, overweight mafia men in sunbeds, and continues with endless shots of sagging male breasts, thick necks, and burnt, deeply freckled shoulders. There is a directorial obsession with the male flesh; the aging and the juvenile male body. In other words, a lot of sweat (and I mean a lot; so many greasy faces that even through 16mm and the dubious HD of the Phoenix, I was counting pores) and skin cancer. Depicting the bodies of the men, the camera’s gaze moves from the neo-realist to the fetishistic With all this (literally) oozing machismo, it’s not surprising that the central relationship between two young Neopolitan men is tinged with more than a hint of homoeroticism. The physical difference between Marco (Marco Marcor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) is strongly marked; Marco is strong, stocky and butch, while Ciro – nicknamed ‘Sweet Pea’ by his friend – has a gauntness that mingles comedy with vulnerability, and it is towards him – if anyone – that the viewer’s sympathies tend. Marco is a man, Ciro a boy. Their love for each other remains touchingly if tautly unchanged during their aborted rise from Camorra initiates to suicidally over-confident (and coked up) bosses. Every character in the film enacts or experiences betrayal; as the other four of the cinque storie brevi, with which the Italian documentary on the film is subtitled, end in bloodshed or abandonment, the viewer waits for something to go horribly wrong between the two boys whose intimacy highlights the dearth elsewhere. They are both horrific and endearing. They are eventually betrayed together, lured to their deaths by one of the Camorra whose boss they’ve annoyed. The wrong note, the clue to the betrayal lies in the proposition; the man they’re supposedly meant to be killing is a ‘traitor’ because ‘he stole my woman’. In Gomorra, this could never be true. Women don’t matter. They barely appear; the sole shot of Pasquale (a likeable tailor who betrays his boss with dreadful consequences)’s wife and baby sleeping peacefully in a double bed reminds us, through its unexpectedness, of the romanticised gangster-passion that the neo-realist Gomorra eschews. There are no priests. No churches. A wedding procession through a Scampia slum is observed by shrieking kids and mafia bosses (there is no participation by the main characters; no emotional engagement in the rite) and walked along a tatty blue carpet that abruptly runs out. One cross hangs above a dying man’s bed; a symbol of hypocrisy given the unChristian behaviour of everybody in the room. there are no funerals. The only ‘coffin’ we see is a ghastly metal container wheeled through to a hospital morgue (my God, the hospitals are disgusting. Although, having been there last week, I have to say that parts of the Churchill in Oxford aren’t much better). At the sliding doors that separate corridor from autopsy room, the motley band of young initiates who’ve accompanied their fallen comrade touch or kiss the gurney, and step back. I waited for one of them to cross themselves. They didn’t.
Tonight I’m going to see The Vagina Monologues at the New Theatre (can’t believe it’s the New as opposed to the Playhouse or even the OFS – more standard fare for the New is the last show I saw there – Guys & Dolls). Don’t recognise anyone from this cast, but one – Abi Roberts – has her own website describing her as ‘the British Bette Midler‘. We shall see. Tomorrow it’s back to the coalface, if by coalface you mean the Bodleian and the foulest book of critical theory anyone’s ever been unfortunate enough to see. I am presenting next week on Browning & the ‘Radical Aesthetic’. Not, as yet, sure what the radical aesthetic is. I seem to have spent a lot of this degree (‘this’ degree, ha) thus far googling the meanings of words. Browning is just as good as I remember. I’m using the Wordsworth edition of his Poems while my new one arrives & my GCSE notes are quite hilariously bad. Spending far too much money on books, as per. Meanwhile, the campaign has begun to get college to pay for myself and a friend to attend Between the Covers, a conference on women’s magazines from 1800 to the present day. The Women’s Library are hosting and the speakers sound pretty bloody exciting. Ironically, this is about the only time I’ll justifiably pester college for a travel grant… I’ve never needed £800 to go schlep round the Middle East, for example, but £30 to London and back would be very handy.