The appeal of the gangster is evergreen: Whether it's The Godfather or The Sopranos or Grand Theft Auto, well-crafted crime epics aren't likely to ever go out of style. Gomorrah—one of the best films to play the recent Portland International Film Festival—opens this week at Cinema 21, covering the screen with splattery blood, moody lighting, and a heavy layer of self-importance.

Based on an exposé-style novel by Roberto Saviano—a writer who has reportedly been granted a permanent police escort by Italian authorities because his book pissed off so many murderous gangsters—Gomorrah takes itself very, very seriously. Which is fair, since people die all the way through it, and the film's often brutal events aren't exactly the stuff of slapstick. But it also seems a little bit too enamored with its messages, and a coda that closes the film threatens to make the whole thing feel like a "dramatic reenactment" from Italy's Most Wanted. Luckily, though, the rest of the film is so solid—in its careful, insightful, and interconnected profiles of its desperate characters—that Gomorrah manages to be just as engaging as it thinks it is, even if it's not nearly as revelatory as it would like to be.

The basics are what you'd expect from any mobster flick: Various goodfellas in Naples, Italy, kick ass and take names, ruling their neighborhoods and running elaborate illegal operations. Where Gomorrah really succeeds, though, is in who it chooses to profile—rather than looking at the Naples equivalents of Don Corleone or Tony Soprano, Gomorrah goes the Grand Theft Auto route, telling the far more dangerous and identifiable stories of the wannabes and the never-weres. Most memorably, there's 13-year-old Totò (Salvatore Abruzzese), who delivers groceries for his mother before deciding to prove himself to a gang. (His first test upon entry is strapping on a bulletproof vest and getting shot point blank.) There's Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato), a middle-aged milquetoast who runs money back and forth, all the while wishing he could work with people who weren't murderers and/or assholes. There's Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo), an idealistic tailor who's dumb enough to take a job teaching local Chinese workers how to make the best dresses—never thinking that gangsters might take umbrage with his tutorials. There's the young Roberto (Carmine Paternoster), who starts apprenticing under Franco (Toni Servillo), a man who goes to any length to illegally dispose of toxic waste. And there are two dipshits, Marco and Ciro (Marco Macor and Ciro Petrone), who, in their desperate, ill-advised bids to become powerful crime lords, end up way, way out of their league.

Some of these characters have good intentions, some don't, and others are simply trying to get by—regardless, I don't think it's a major spoiler to note that most of Gomorrah's protagonists don't get whatever happy endings they're hoping for. As an intricate look at how these characters' lives tangentially connect, though, the confident, intense, well-acted, and beautifully shot Gomorrah delivers exactly what audiences expect out of a crime epic: dark drama, murky morality, and the sordid thrill of finding yourself rooting for the bad guys.