Gomorrah begins with an otherworldly image of a man bathed in blue light, and it's apt that one of the few moments that show us actual mobsters doing actual mob things evokes the notion of an alien in a spaceship. The real-life Neapolitan crime organization, known as the Camorra, is depicted here as a hovering presence above the locals, dropping down into ordinary lives only as sudden flashes of death, but otherwise reigning from above, its fearsome presence unseen but influencing every action.

When the book of the same name by Roberto Saviano hit Italian culture two years ago like a Molotov cocktail, it infuriated the Camorra for delineating its inner workings, and earned the author permanent police protection. But apart from depicting a few bruisers low on the hierarchy, the movie moves the action to the periphery, focusing on a handful of lives tangled up in the mob's lower tentacles.

A middle-aged man with the soul of a nervous, unhappy little boy; a gentle dressmaker; an ambitious but naive college graduate; two local yahoos with the wild idea that they can prey on the mob themselves; and a young boy ready to move up the ladder—Gomorrah marks out the fates of these men with cool, understated remove. Their stories are unconnected (and thankfully free of the coincidental crossing of paths that typically rules such affairs). Instead, the cluster of the mob's control is exemplified by the young boy's housing complex, a sort of decaying industrial hive, where the lives of the inhabitants are closely bound together and bound by the laws of the Camorra.

Apparently, this was, in fact, the case for the location. Director Matteo Garrone has indicated in interviews that filming there went on only with the organization's necessary approval, along with a bribe or two (the grudge against the book was evidently not held against the film). But this is not the kind of production mobsters typically embrace with a flush of pleasure at seeing themselves onscreen. As the two gangly teenage wannabes cavort in emulation of De Palma's Scarface, it serves as a reminder that this is something different. There is no mythologizing, no score to shape your experience (apart from whatever music happens to be playing in the scene), and the moments of violence come not as operatic set pieces but as the unexpected, quiet ugliness of real violence.

Just as those diegetic songs are often pumped up to full volume, immersing you in this world, the movie does the same by means of big, gorgeously gritty cinematography. The images move nimbly from beautifully composed long shots haunted with telling detail to close-ups that move with documentary-style immediacy, hugging tight to the characters and rushing you along with them. One marvelous moment has the camera almost dancing and swaying along with one of the teenage thieves as he performs a spontaneous happy dance after ripping off local drug dealers.

That burst of joy is one of the few concessions made to outright entertainment, and if the film has a failing it's that it's sometimes distanced nearly to the point of disinterest. But it's a small price to pay for a work that neatly sidesteps expectation and convention time and time again—any time you have an ominous feeling, it's probably wrong, and the narrative signposts that in most films lead in one direction lead here to somewhere else or, more to the point, to nowhere at all.

This is never more evident than in a scene in which two young best friends are parted by a split between warring factions of the Camorra. There is no heart-rending goodbye, to be followed by a scene in which a difficult choice must be made. There's just a simple "see you later" with which they acknowledge their new reality. Then they go on with their day, and it never comes up again. That's a function of the film's unflagging sense of reality, which permeates not just the mise-en-scène and story, but every single remarkable performance. If there is no mythologizing, there is no outrage conveyed either. Other than to say: This is the reality. Which is outrage enough.


opens Friday at Cinema 21.