Roberto Saviano’s 2006 book Gomorrah broke all the rules of writing about the Mafia – and not just the one where you don’t write about the Mafia if you want to live. A true-crime look at the vast web of organised crime centred on Naples, it refused to glamorise or give a movie-star sheen to the thugs and killers that had the region in their grip. The 2008 film adaptation made clearer the depths of corruption and murder involved, but there’s only so much you can cover in two hours. If you really want to dig down into organised crime, you need a television series to do it. That’s where Gomorrah comes in.
Gomorrah opens on two men at a Naples service station filling a petrol can. Attilio (Antonio Milo) isn’t happy about his kids being on social media; Ciro (Marco D’Amore), the younger of the duo, knows enough to correctly identify Facebook as the problem. It’s a friendly chat between a couple of guys who could be on their way to mow a lawn or cut down some trees. But both men are members of one of the numerous crime gangs that form Camorra, AKA “The System” that controls their region of Italy, and they’re on their way to torch the house of a rival crime lord’s mother.
The Savastano crime family is headed by the aging and locked up Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino), while his son Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito) is a live wire who’d be long dead if not for the fact that, as the only son of the Don, he’s next in line to the throne. It’s up to Ciro to educate him in the ways of the world they inhabit, but as this is a gangster story, it’s not that simple. Loyalties are constantly shifting, power plays are always brewing, and just when you think you can relax there’s a fresh corpse right in front of you.
Fans of the recent adaptation of Savino’s later book ZeroZeroZero (which was also adapted into a series and is now streaming at SBS On Demand) will have an idea of what to expect here: his work excels at exploring the day to day realities of running organised crime while finding the human drama within. But where ZeroZeroZero largely kept things at a distance – out on the high seas or in the deserts of Africa - much of what makes Gomorrah so chilling is its immediacy.
American mafia movies are all, on some level, about nostalgia – even in The Sopranos, everyone knows their best days are behind them. And the Mexican cartels that have replaced them in pop culture are usually depicted as near-inhuman evil populated by ghouls (nobody watched the cartel plotline in ZeroZeroZero and came away thinking “yeah, that looks like a great way of life”).
Gomorrah is different because it’s happening now. Roberto Saviano has been living in hiding since the publication of his book for fear of retribution from the real Camorra (if this series is any guide, he’s right to be scared). The characters and plot might initially seem like traditional gangster material, but that’s part of the genius of this series: by using elements we all understand and recognise, it’s able to reveal in a relatively matter-of-fact way the real world of organised crime that currently exists in Europe.
The criminals initially look like clichés because this is a series about where those clichés come from. The often jarring collision between the extreme wealth the gangsters are surrounded by and the shattered communities outside their front doors is a reflection of the real social divides that exist in today’s world. The crumbling tower blocks where much of the action takes place are the real setting for real crime – though demolition began earlier this year on the Le Vele tower blocks outside Naples, where much of the original film was set.
This realism also makes the murders – so very many murders – more jarring than the usual screen mob executions. It’s an epic story full of twists and betrayals, but it never strives for the operatic. These are grubby killers doing dirty work and the series never lets you forget that. In fact, it works hard to prevent audiences from ever feeling comfortable with anyone; people who seemed merely tough guys darken into monsters, while those with no stomach for brutality are never looked down on for their supposed weaknesses.
The whole series is built around and focused on the anxiety that comes with a full-time life of crime. From a visual style that constantly plays up the darkness and shadows where these characters operates (and where a killer could be hiding) to a soundtrack designed solely to keep the audience on edge – the ominous drone of ZeroZeroZero’s cartel sequences has nothing on this series’ minimalist electronica – and a narrative where just about anyone can and often does die at any time, Gomorrah relentlessly hammers home one notion.
No matter how rich or powerful you are, you can’t stop a bullet.
Seasons 1-4 of Gomorrah are streaming now at SBS on Demand.
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