The buzz on Matteo Garrone's mafia epic Gomorrah was more than any movie could really hope to stand up against (Martin Scorsese: "Best mob movie ever!"*), but even if it's no timeless masterpiece, there's still quite a lot to love in its panoramic, ensemble-based view of a Neapolitan crime syndicate, a depiction close enough to reality that the author of Gomorrah's source novel was obliged to go into police-arranged hiding, a fact that every single review of this film sees fit to mention.

To the American viewer whose concept of "mob movies" is fundamentally indistinguishable from The Godfather and its sequels, Scorsese's Goodfellas, Casino and perhaps Mean Streets, and the television series The Sopranos, Garrone's film comes as something of a shock to the system: its POV is stuck firmly on the ground level of the Camorra crime family, and most of the film's 137 minutes follow the day-to-day business of running small deals and managing insignificant corners of a much bigger empire. Here's what I mean: one of the several threads that runs through the film concerns a mob-supported tailor who starts a deal under the table with a rival Chinese gang; early in this storyline we see a quick scene in which the tailor and his mafia contact win a bidding war by offering to produce 800 gowns at €30 each, or €24,000 all told. This figure isn't given much if any weight (the story is much more concerned with the ramifications from the tailor's defection later on), but can you imagine any American crime movie spending a healthy portion of its running time on a plot to make something in the neighborhood of $30,000? That's the whole point of the film, in a nutshell: it's not about the Shakespearean tragedies that afflict the most powerful men in crime, but about the petty deals and forgotten murders that keep the mafia running.

I can't help myself, but do like every other English speaker has done in response to Gomorrah, and compare it to that other HBO series, The Wire. As insights go, that's a fairly superficial one, but I think it gives at least some idea of what Garrone's film is like, both in its visual language (lots of hand-held camera work; grainy, cluttered, ugly interiors), and its level of complexity (remember how confusing it was to keep track of all the characters and plotlines for the first couple of episodes that you watched? Well, take that and add cultural differences!), and even its political engagement and desire to explain all the details of an unfathomably gigantic social issue. The fact that it took David Simon 60 hour-long television episodes to examine the drug war and organised corruption in Baltimore, while Garrone hasn't even spent two-and-a-half hours exploring a mafia family that has killed in excess of 4,000 people since the 1970s - one every three days, the movie helpfully tells us in a title card - speaks to the biggest problems that Gomorrah suffers from: biting off infinitely more than it can chew, and hoping that the audience can keep up with a torrent of details which are frequently presented as sketches to be filled out later, so as to save time.

That this approach of throwing everything at the wall and praying it sticks works so often in Gomorrah as it does is something of a minor miracle. There are some very definite problems with the screenplay's narrative structure (six credited writers couldn't possibly have anything to do with that...), with only a couple of the film's several plotlines boasting anything like "a beginning" or "an ending", as opposed to "the place where we arbitrarily start watching this person", this is somewhat negated by the way that the screenplay - and much more importantly, Garrone's chilly God's-eye-view camera - allow us to soak up the action taking place without always feeling like it must have a dramatic arc, or that each and every detail must make sense the very first time we encounter it. I'm not exactly certain what to compare it to: nothing here looks like it's all that revolutionary, but the particular combination of documentary=like observation mixed with the vaguely nihilistic treatment of the characters like bugs under glass isn't quite like anything else I've seen. Without leaving the Italian film industry, it's sort of like if the Michelangelo Antonioni of the 1960s directed a 1940s Neorealist film.

By all means, this is a hard film to love; the grim subject matter makes sure of that even before the uncomfortably objective perspective comes along and drives the movie straight into Arthouse Land. And the kind of people who would be most inclined to give a mafia film an even break are probably looking for the glitzier style of an American film like De Palma's Scarface, which comes in for some harsh criticism in the form of two young idiots whose romantic infatuation with gangster culture sets them up for exactly what they deserve, in Gomorrah's most typical plotline. But Garrone has achieved a certain special something with this film anyway, creating an unusually thought-provoking, annoying, difficult and ultimately unique work that might not be one of the year's best, but is surely among its most interesting.

*Not actually, but he did have extremely nice things to say about it.