[Portions of this review were previously published at Good Letters the Image blog.]

Martin Scorsese was so impressed by Matteo Garrone’s film about the Italian mafia, Gommorah, that he stamped his name on it to attract a larger American audience.

And yet, it’s so very different from any gangster epic that he, Francis Ford Coppola, or any American filmmakers have made. This isn’t a story about how a nobody worked his way up to become a monster, or about some charismatic bad guys who are finally caught by sin’s bloody consequences.

“Gomorrah” is a clever reference to a damned city and to the crime network controlling it—the Camorra clan. Garrone’s film, released this year in a two-disc Criterion edition, focuses on an entire community suffering under Camooran oppression. It becomes an inescapable labyrinth that would have given Kafka nightmares, as the Cammora have a chokehold on their country. Their network has become a monster with far-reaching tentacles.

It’s a confusing film the first time through; Garrone drops us into crowded scenarios in medias res, and we’re left to work out who’s who and how they’re connected to the gangsters. But it doesn’t take long to understand that everything is tainted by their criminal operations. Whether it’s murder by gunshots or murder made slow by covert toxic-waste dumping, these drug lords are slowly killing whole neighborhoods, including the persecuted people who do their dirty work.

It’s full of scenes that introduce us into the environment and activities of poor laborers in a housing project in Naples. But as we watch each scenario, the pricking in our thumbs worsens into revelations of pervasive depravity. We learn that even the most mundane transactions and conversations are poisoned by the ploys of the Cammora, Italy’s dominant crime network. And then, its style – almost cinema verite – becomes something more like an X-ray, exposing a chilly image of malignant crime and corruption as it spread throughout the body of a culture.

Then, the doctor, director Matteo Garrone, pans back to show you that the disease has spread beyond Italy’s body. It’s contagious. It’s global.

I could point to the brilliance of any number of scenes that illustrate this. Let’s take two:

An old peasant woman carries a crate of peaches to the toxic waste management specialist visiting her neighborhood in southern Italy. He accepts them graciously, and then drives away, only to ask his young assistant Roberto to throw the peaches out.

At first this seems cruel and wasteful. Roberto, heartsick, looks down at the peaches lying in the gutter. And we realize that this isn’t a case of disrespecting the old woman’s gift. No, it’s far worse than that. The peaches have probably been poisoned by the toxic waste dumped in the neighborhood landfill, and they, like the Camorra’s slaves – willing and unwilling – will go on suffering and dying from exposure to their crimes.

The sight of those beautiful, throwaway peaches is one of the film’s few poetic flourishes; everything else is depicted with clinical objectivity. But at that point in the film, a bit of poetry is a welcome pause. We’ve seen so much corruption. And at last we’re allowed, for a moment, to mourn.

In another unforgettable moment, a humble tailor who goes on doing his best despite his corrupt context and inescapable criminal connections glances up at the television and smiles. With pride, he sees that Scarlett Johansson is wearing a dress from his new line as she walks the red carpet. And with that, Garrone quietly daggers us with the revelation that we, watching and celebrating Italian fashions as we celebrate our celebrity culture, are not so innocent of this criminal underworld as we’d like to believe.

Of course, he’s already shown how American media has contributed to this underworld. In more than one scene, brutal youths quote Scarface’s Tony Montana and act out his maniacal machine-gun spray, as if they understand Montana to be some kind of role model. The difference between Garrone’s film and the American depictions of the Italian mafia? Nobody will ever mimic these youngsters’ buffoonish antics. They’ve been shown in the cold, punishing light of truth, and what comes to them is not a mansion and a Michelle Pfeiffer lookalike, but the wages of sin, unglamorized.

At first, <i>Gomorrah</i> may feel to American moviegoers like a “foreign” film about a “foreign” problem. But if they’re paying attention, I suspect that they will feel heartsick as the distance between “us” and “them” is slowly erased, and we realize Cammoran corruption stains American hands as well. The title cards at the end of the film, describing the extent of the crooks’ influence, come like a knockout punch. I’m still reeling from the impact.

Ephesians 5:11 — an essential New Testament exhortation for artists — says, “Have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness. Instead, even expose them.” This film is based on the testimony of Roberto Saviano. By telling the truth, he may not set the world free, but he makes us more aware of the poison and the persecuted, which can kindle compassion and complicate the villains’ work.