“Gomorrah,” the latest film sensation to come out of Italy, is no romantic comedy à la “Roman Holiday.” Instead, it’s a chilling look at the thriving modern-day Neapolitan mafia. The project has won raves from international critics, picked up the 2008 Grand Prix at the Cannes International Film Festival and was selected as Italy’s submission for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming Academy Awards. Still on the festival circuit, “Gomorrah” premiered Sunday at Los Angeles’ AFI Film Festival.

Directed by Matteo Garrone and based on the best-selling 2006 mob exposé by young journalist Roberto Saviano, who cowrote the script, the movie grimly reveals the violent underworld of the Camorra, Naples’ oligarchical crime ring. With business operations ranging from drug trafficking and waste management to fashion houses in Milan, the Camorra reportedly rakes in more than $233 billion a year, all the while eclipsing local government and terrorizing the citizenry. “To be honest, I had no idea this kind of life was a reality just a couple hours away from my home in Rome,” says Garrone, a 40-year-old painter-turned-filmmaker best known for Italian hits such as 1998’s “Guests” and 2002’s “The Embalmer.”

This story first appeared in the November 3, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“We look at ‘Gomorrah’ and say, ‘How can people not know what’s going on around them? How can people live this way?’ The truth is, many people aren’t even aware of the conditions in which they are living their lives,” he continues. “It’s very easy to fall into this whole mechanism the Camorra operates.”

Garrone’s film, shot in an unflinching style inspired by war reporting, weaves together five story lines from Saviano’s tome. Protagonists include 13-year-old Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese), who willingly gets shot in the chest as an initiation into a gang; mob money-runner Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato); master dressmaker Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), who moonlights for the Chinese; waste management boss Franco (Toni Servillo), and two wannabe gangster teens — Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone), who are obsessed with the film “Scarface.”

“Everyone in Italy said no movie could ever be made from this book. It was just too big,” says Garrone, who disregarded naysayers and sought out the film rights just two weeks after Saviano’s book landed in stores.

And though Saviano has been living under police protection due to multiple death threats (and recently announced he is fleeing Italy temporarily), Garrone was remarkably unconcerned for his own safety during filming.

“When I arrived in Naples to shoot, I wasn’t sure what I would find,” he says. “Many people came to the sets to watch. [But] they were open because I wasn’t judging them — I was reporting on the world of the Camorra. That’s what made the difference.”

That said, Garrone doesn’t harbor any illusions that his film will change the grim reality of life under the Camorra.

“They say even the smallest story can change things for the better. I am not so sure that I can be that optimistic in this case,” he says. “I never wanted to make such a dark movie, but I had to tell the truth.”

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