Why Gomorrah should be next on your to-watch list

Sky's Italian crime drama Gomorrah is more than just another tale of gangsters. Michael takes a spoiler-free look at the first series...

Roberto Saviano was twenty-seven years old when everything changed. The Neapolitan journalist and philosophy graduate had spent much of his early and mid 20s investigating the Camorra, a Campania-based criminal organisation that rivals the Sicilian Mafia in terms of power, influence and brutality. In 2006, Saviano published his research in a book, Gomorra. It was an immediate global success. Translated into 51 languages, the book sold millions of copies in its first year alone. Saviano became a literary celebrity, attracting the support of writers, intellectuals and politicians, including a respectable handful of Nobel Prize laureates.  He was nominated for literary prizes in languages he could not even speak. None of this is really why everything changed. 

In the near-decade since his book’s publication, Saviano has been living in a succession of anonymous safe houses and police barracks. He never leaves alone. When he travels, he is accompanied by a guard of armed officers. He hasn’t taken a train, ridden a Vespa or been out for a beer in eight years. ‘This life’, he told The Guardian at the beginning of this year, ‘is shit’. 

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The Camorra might want Saviano dead, but it is already too late. His work is already out there and has taken on a life far more expansive than that currently suffered by its author. Gomorra was made into a play (which Saviano co-wrote), a movie in 2008 and, for Italian Sky Atlantic, an episodic TV series.

 

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In common with the other adaptations, the TV show offers a fictionalised portrayal of the activities of the Comorra, creating a suite of characters who conform to real world patterns but in a way that gives the writers freedom to explore the Campania ‘System’ in a thorough and dramatically justified manner. It allows them, for example, to address the situation at different levels of the organisation from the wealthy bosses right down to the skinny teenage wannabes. This multilevel viewpoint has drawn comparisons with The Wire, a show that shares Gomorrah’s concern, depth and anger. 

Nevertheless, for the drama to work at all it needs to have a focus. Gomorrah achieves this by spending most of the season examining the unit headed by ‘Don’ Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino), a middle-aged boss whose organisation shows signs of longevity and order. His soldiers are, for the most part, of a similar age to him, professional, experienced and loyal. Theirs is a close-knit unit, whose meetings are held at Savastano’s own house, a hideously gaudy McMansion that he shares with his wife, the equally ruthless Immacolata,(Maria Pia Calzone) and their newly-adult son Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito).  Life, it seems, is generally good. The relationship between Pietro and Immacolata appears solid, loving and warm while Genarro, who possesses the lazy manner of the over-indulged only child of a millionaire is nevertheless a dutiful son. Savastano himself is the picture of success, happily forking out thousands of Euros to meet his wife’s home decor demands and keeping his son supplied with top-of-the-range Vespas. He sits at his desk in the evenings, bespectacled and lit by the pale blue glare of his computer monitor, looking every inch the self-made businessman. It just happens that he runs a firm that requires its employees to torch the homes of its rivals. 

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Of course, in a system such as that run by the Camorra, even the most assured leader can never truly rest easy. Savastano is prey to the usual concerns of gangsters; the threat posed by other clans, the perisitent doubt as to the loyalty of supposedly trusted lieutenants, the question of his succession. We witness the interplay of all these worries through the eyes of the putative protagonist, Ciro Di Marzio (Marco D’Amore), a stylish Camorristi who, in his early 30s, is crossing the boundary from young hot-head to patient veteran. Ciro’s loyalty to the System is beyond question, it is not merely the only life that he knows, it’s the only one worth living, but he too is nonetheless plagued by doubts about his place within it, particularly now that Genarro has come of age and the influence of rival clan leader Salvatore Conte starts to take hold. 

Ciro is a cold figure, largely humourless and permanently suspicious. He’s capable of the most brutal violence and of callous manipulation. He’s also a snazzy dresser. None of this is accidental. Somewhat appropriately for a programme that is performed in a Neapolitan dialect so thick that even Italian broadcasts came with subtitles, some of Gomorrah’s central arguments (and best scenes) are made wordlessly. Ciro’s natty leather jacket and sleek designer suit offer a contrast with the tracksuits of the various kids who act as hangers-on and demonstrate some of the financial appeal of camorristi life. Equally, the crude, nouveau riche tastes of the Savastanos point to their relative new arrival at the top of the money chain and hint that success in the System is not always inherited and that power must be asserted anew with each generation. This theme is expanded through the clever use of scenery and the built environment, from the yellowlit underpasses of Naples’ Strade Statali to the grim urban warlands of the ‘le vele’ housing estates in Scampia and Secondigliano to the pristine views across the Bay of Naples.

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The show’s confidence in its ‘show, don’t tell’ style is enhanced by the frequent use of scenes completely free of dialogue. They are rarely offered in complete silence, the sounds of secret activities are mixed with the emotive soundtrack provided by the Rome post-rock outfit Mokadelic. The import of all this is the same as that of Saviano’s book. You want to know what is happening in Camorra territory? Just look. Shut your mouth, open your eyes and look. 

It’s by taking in this scenery that we come to terms with the extent of the problem. The power of the Camorra is not simply in their capacity for violence (though they certainly have a large one) but in the reach of their System. It is so thoroughly a part of the everyday economy of Naples, and by explicit extension, the whole of Europe, that it cannot be meaningfully removed. This System, and the players within it, are as subject to the warp and weft of larger events, among them the internal porousness of the European Union and the attractions that it poses to dangerous outsiders, most notably the Russian mafia. There are opportunities amid the threats; a certain financial flexibility makes navigating the treacherous economy of the Great Recession that little bit easier and getting your own way is far simpler if you have the power to control elections. Sometimes, it’s damn good to be a Camorristi.

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Much of the first season operates in a slightly episodic manner. Certain issues arise in the shape of characters who appear, are dealt with and disappear, leaving the central cohort to continue with their core business. All the while, a larger picture begins to appear and, towards the end of the twelve episodes, coalesces into a solid and gripping storyline that absorbs all the others. It is handled very well indeed, smartly presented, brilliantly performed and tightly plotted. Rumours of a second season are to be warmly welcomed. This run serves as an excellent starting point, but as with Saviano’s original book, there is much more of a life to be had now that we’ve had such a superb introduction.   

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