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Peter Byrne is an old friend and co-contributor to Swans who has lived
in Italy for years. He was commenting on my review of "Toxic Circle", a
film being shown as part of Socially Relevant 2017 that examines toxic
dumping in the Campania region of southern Italy.
Roberto Saviano talked about illegal waste dumping in his book
‘Gomorrah’ of 2006. He said, “The south of Italy is the end of the line
for the dregs of production, useless leftovers, and toxic waste”. He
calculated that “this heap of unregulated and unreported waste would be
the highest mountain on earth,” 20,000 feet higher than Everest. He
analyzed what is a highly efficient business. Middlemen offer
industries, mainly in North Italy, a better price to dispose of waste
than available elsewhere. Costs on moving the material are cut to the
bone by using random, often immigrant workers. Sites are got cheaply by
evading tax or any regulations. ‘Gomorrah’ was passionate investigative
reporting. Some readers were disappointed in the movie Matteo Garrone
made in 2008. They expected a documentary full of numbers and facts and
got an action movie. But it did get the deadly social background
absolutely right and revealed a society where everyone, willing or not,
was involved in organized crime.
The movie tells five stories of people from the book’s world. One of
these perfectly illustrates how illegal waste disposal works. The
remarkable Neapolitan actor Toni Servillo is Franco, a waste management
middleman, who is breaking in a young assistant, Roberto, a typical
educated southerner without a job. Franco has procured by payoffs a huge
quarry as a dump for toxic waste. He takes wide-eyed Roberto north and
reaches an agreement with an industrialist who salivates over the low
price quoted. When the toxic drums arrive at the quarry one splits and
spills on a truck driver. Franco hustles him out of the way like
something disposable, refusing to call an ambulance. The other drivers,
all non-Italian and black, get the wind up and pull out of the job.
Franco, always the seasoned operator, is not at a loss. He rounds up
ten-and-eleven-year olds from the nearest town to drive the trucks
around the quarry. For those who can’t reach the steering wheels, he
furnishes cushions to sit on. The drums are buried. Roberto is learning.
In the next operation Franco buys permission from a dying landowner,
deep in debt, to dump on his land. While Franco is busy soft-soaping the
future widow in the sick room, Robert walks around outside. He notices
the sad shape of vegetation in what has always been thought of as the
garden of Europe. He talks to an old woman hoeing her cabbage patch.
Franco appears, his deal closed, and the two men get ready to drive
away. But first the old woman insists they accept a gift of peaches from
her tree. A couple of miles down the road Franco stops the car and tells
Roberto to throw out the peaches. Roberto, still learning, asks why.
Franco says because everything down here is contaminated.
The impact of all this is heightened by Franco speaking in the dialect
of the area he’s polluting, just as he made use of traditional
family-value sentiment in hoodwinking the farmer. Robert ditches the
peaches but won’t return to the car, or to the job. Franco taunts him.
He needn’t feel superior. If they don’t dump the chromium and asbestos,
someone else will. And, besides, without his middle-manning, Italy
wouldn’t have met European Union requirements for cleaning up the North.
That’s precisely the rub. Southern Italians are poisoning themselves.
‘Gomorrah’ is a powerful movie pretty much without hope. It would be
false if it were not. Roberto’s decency isn’t quite in tune. It’s more
like citing one of the South’s many saints as an example to sinners.
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