Matteo Garrone’s latest film is an even more eviscerating vision of the role that organised crime plays in Italian society than Gomorrah. Set in the seaside Roman neigbourhood of Magliana, it’s about a Marcello, a diminutive dog handler played by Marcello Fonte, who breeds dogs and deals a bit of cocaine on the side, but lives a more or less harmless life, trying to provide a home and set a good example for his daughter. To some extent, he’s a part of the local community, but for the most part that community is kept at a distance, despite the fact that the film is organised around the supposedly communal space – a square, two banks of shops and a beachfront – that anchors this part of Magliana. While we do occasionally glimpse this community coming together in a local soccer park, their games tend to be abstracted away from the rest of the film by night and fog, restricting most of Marcello’s interactions to his dealings with Simone, a local thug, played by Edoardo Pesce, who has a habit of preying on anybody he can, to get whatever he can. From the outset, it’s clear that Marcello is an easy target, and as the film proceeds Simone forces his lackey to do one terrible thing after another, culminating with him demanding that Marcello help him break into the gold dealer next door to his dog business, and then take the fall for him by going to jail for a year when the crime is discovered and the community turns against them.
From the outset, too, it’s clear that Simone plays the role of Mafioso in this particular community, although it’s a unique and unusual kind of Mafioso presence. For one thing, the few glimpses of crime we see are quite benign, low-level and dissociated from Simone’s agency. For another thing, Simone himself is utterly disinterested in the ideals of family, fraternity and criminal collaboration that typically accompany a Mafioso outlook. Instead, in Simone, that outlook is condensed to a figure of pure phallic destruction and antisociality that manages to elude all the efforts of police and locals to contain him. For all that the police might throw him in jail every couple of months, and for all that the locals might half-heartedly devise a plan to have him killed, he’s essentially untouchable, and goes about his business with no conception of consequences, let alone expectation of them. In fact, it’s never really clear whether Simone is in fact protected, or whether he is simply occupying the space left by whatever Mafioso presence once controlled the area. Yet that just makes his power all the stronger, as he becomes a placeholder for the structuration once provided by the Mafioso, without ever having to give anything back to the local community in return.
As might be expected, that creates a pretty noxious situation for anyone who gets too close to Simone, who demands exactly the same from the community as a regular Mafioso leader. Specifically, he demands that Marcello sacrifice family and society to his will, since the jewel heist means that Marcello will be permanently alienated from the local community, but also that he will have to give up custody of his daughter, who is the driving motivation in his daily life. In a regular Mafioso situation, Simone would presumably compensate by inducting Marcello, and his other men, into an even broader conception of community and family, but here that community, and family, never arrive. Even when Marcello has spent a year in jail for Marcello – a gesture that typically forms the crux of the Mafioso honour code – Simone proves himself more disinterested in loyalty, and more demanding of loyalty, than ever. Situating himself in a space once occupied by the Mafia, and still occupied by the Mafia in the popular imagination, Simone thus takes advantage of the extent to which the Mafioso ethos of obedience, submission and self-sacrifice has worked its way into every facet of Italian life, even when its promises of fraternal, community and reward are patently false.
In the process, Garrone suggests that the Mafioso has come to occupy much the same position in Italian culture as the Catholic church, asking people to put its institutional demands above family and society, but only providing an illusion of family and society in return. So integral are those ideals of family to Italian society, the film suggests, that to remove them is to effectively displace Italian society from itself, which is perhaps why Garrone’s vision of Magliana quickly approaches the dislocated cityscapes of neorealism, suffused with eerily vacant tableau in which people and infrastructure are certainly present, but any sense of collective life is offset by a pervasive sense of atmospheric and ambient disruption, from the fog that hangs over the first part of the film, to the electrical storm that never quite douses the final act. Ever since it was first constructed in the 70s by speculators, the Magliana neighborhood has been a hotbed of community activism within the Roman conurbation, as a collective of socialist and communist organisations responded to the lack of public upkeep and amenities with some of the most vigorous anti-eviction measures and robust squatter settlements in the city. Yet that collective impulse is eerily absent from Garrone’s vision, which accentuates the lack of proper public space, but never once offers up a community or social sphere that seems capable of inhabiting, let alone changing, them.
At an even more existential level, the absence of human society, and the possibility of human society, moves the film out of the realm of the anthropocentric altogether, as Garrone reserves most of the key emotional moments for Marcello’s relationship with his dogs, which exceed even his relationship with his daughter. While his attachment to Simone may remove him further from society, the structural possibility of Simone in the first place means that society is already absent to begin with – a fact that Garrone acknowledges by pitching the scale and address of the film to the dogs that Marcello tends, while tending to frame Simone as a larger and more aggressive dog as well. Poised between his dogs and Simone, and between smaller and larger dogs, Marcello never quite occupies the film’s focus, always elided or marginalised by the scale and ambit of Garrone’s shots, which ensure that even in large crowd scenes the human world is always happening at a distance.
The sheer intractable fact of Simone also means that the film is never able to reconstitute society, since even when the villagers see Simone rewarding Marcello for his prison time by almost killing him, and even when it is clear that Simone and Marcello have parted ways, the aura of untouchability still remains. In order to glean even a small amount of remuneration for his sacrifice, then, Marcello has to deal with Simone outside of society, in a properly antisocial manner, which here means bringing him into the world of his dogs, not so much because his relation to his dogs is antisocial, but because this is the only space in the film that is divorced from the promise or expectation that human society can be reclaimed. Starting with an incredible scene in which he handles his nemesis like a dangerous and challenging dog – an extraordinary piece of haptic acting from both parties – Marcello embarks upon a training program that ends with him desperately, and somewhat inadvertently, realising that the only way to train Simone is to kill him, and that there is not the slightest possibility of wresting any community or family from him while he is still alive.
Unfortunately, for Marcello, there is no possibility of achieving this after Simone is dead either. In an achingly haunting scene, he brings Simone’s body to deposit on the sand dunes, only to hear the distant sound of collective voices for the only time in the film. Leaving the body where it is, he runs through the sand and – for the first time – we see the soccer park devoid of smoke or darkness, embedded as a genuinely collective space within the community. Strangely, the players can’t seem to hear Marcello’s cries for attention, so he goes back to collect the body, certain that displaying it to them will reinstate the sense of community that Simone’s presence has already precluded. When he arrives, however, the players have vanished and the soccer park is abstracted as it ever was, forcing Marcello to drag Simone’s body into the middle of the town square for approbation, only to find that the entirety of Magliana seems to have been evacuated, and that there is not a single person or neighbour remaining to welcome him back into the fold, or to create a new fold, let alone any possibility of regaining custody of his daughter, who we never once see again.
In a devastating final gesture, then, it becomes clear that simply removing the Mafioso is inadequate, just as removing people who step into the space once inhabited by the Mafiso is inadequate, since it is the space itself – the structural dependence of Italian society on a certain Mafioso conception of loyalty and obedience – that is so intractable and destructive to the collective texture of this once-thriving hotbed of socialist and communist activism. Rather than “return” to a community or family that precedes this Mafioso ideal, the ideal itself has consumed the very possibility of that return, forcing Marcello to shoulder the burden of that ideal without ever having any hope of reconnecting with the local neighborhood or with his daughter. The closing note is thus the most scathing of Garrone’s career, as he takes aim at a culture so enamoured with the untouchability of the Mafia, and the romance of organised crime, that it has allowed those demands to be made, time and again, by all the interests and institutions that have crowded in to fill the space once occupied by the traditional Mafioso – interests intimately aligned with late capitalism, just as the Magliana activist community was itself an experiment in protesting against late capitalism, and within actual infrastructural conditions that seemed dictated from the start by late capitalism. Within that environment, “society” is perhaps best summarized by the eerie scuba sequences that bookend the narrative – a plethora of bodies, and a fluidity of movement, but a total lack of communication, and a numbing deafness to everything outside individual experience, no matter how eloquently Garrone might try to traverse it.