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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. (https://louisproyect.org/2017/03/10/socially-relevant-film-festival-2017)


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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