Italy's "Gomorrah" a Mob Tale Writ Large

A turf war sets Saviano's Gomorrah, a highly engaging, brutal drama about Neapolitan gangsters, into motion.
Scene from the television show. Key character, Ciro, on left.

Robert Saviano's Gomorrah correctly depicts the Camorra — Italy's Neapolitan Mafia — as having a horizontal structure. This simple fact plays a key role in the plot machinations of the television show.

The Camorra, established in Campania and Naples, may be older and even larger than Italy's other Mafias, with its roots possibly dating back to the 16th century.

The vertical Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian Mafia and the proper name of America's Mafia) is run by bosses with a hierarchy in place. There's a "commission" to help, literally, organize crime, specifically, inter-family criminal activity so wars don't break out. It was quite effective, in America, anyway.

The Camorra majors in the drug trafficking trade, offering the supply that feeds the gnawing addicts' ever increasing demand. Establishing pipelines from foreign sources is one component of the Camorra's main business; another is attaining areas of distribution, where the drugs are dropped off and sold, and cash, grimy and pungent, stored for later collection.

Hence the importance of turf. With such a low barrier of entry and so much product readily available, competition to expand a clan's turf is fierce. There are only so many streets running through Naples' forgotten towns.

Since the Camorra is a collection of affiliated clans, with no regulatory overseer in place (if there is, it's impotent), turf is everything; it's the clan's "storefront," in a manner of speaking. So when a turf war breaks out, the consequences can be devastating.

And it's a turf war that activates the plot of Saviano's Gomorrah (a corruption of the word), a highly engaging, brutal drama about Neapolitan gangsters.

One of Italy's best imports to America this year, Gomorrah is a fascinating television series currently running on the Sundance channel. In August, it was reported that the show was a certifiable foreign-language success. The story of the Neapolitan Camorra "doubled the audience figures of other foreign-language series on the channel."

The book by Saviano

The series gained record ratings all over the world as well as international praise -- it's been called “unique and compelling” (The Hollywood Reporter) and “one of finest works of televised storytelling” (Huffington Post).

Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews, pegged it at a ruddy 94%, ranking it among the five most popular TV shows. 

Gomorrah's third season is in now production, and the show can be seen on the Sundance Channel.

The television show is based on Roberto Saviano's groundbreaking 2007 critically acclaimed best-selling nonfiction book (surprisingly, many stories and reviews about the TV show describe the book as a novel) as well as Matteo Garrone's compelling feature film, which won a Cannes Grand Jury Prize.

The show initially centers on 30-year-old Ciro Di Marzio, nicknamed "The Immortal" (played by Marco d'Amore). Ciro is a street-smart, charming killer, who seems as loyal as they come. He's a key member of the inner circle of the Savastano clan's godfather, Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino). Pietro, with his stylish eyeglasses and intellectual demeanor, resembles a Fortune 500 CEO, especially in an early scene in which he holds a meeting. But he's capable of unbelievable violence and suffers from the unrelenting paranoia of a Mafia boss, though the trait is not a nod to Tony Soprano and his sessions with Dr. Melfi. There's no curing this "problem"; in Italy the paranoia informs the boss's sixth sense and the resulting despair is simply the price paid for living off blood money.

In season one, Pietro ignites a full-scale war over territory. He orders his underlings to set afire the apartment in which a rival boss's mother lives. 

The first episode's opening scene shows two lieutenants at a gas station acquiring the needed gasoline. In what could've been a scene out of the Sopranos, the two grunts, one older and obviously wiser, the other younger and savvy, though less experienced, talk about Facebook....

The film is now available free for the viewing
on Amazon Prime.

After the fire there's a series of violent retaliatory attacks. Never mind the surgical killings we've scene in The Godfather, Goodfellas and The Sopranos, and once read about in the newspapers. This is the Mafia in Naples, Italy, one of the original organized crime groups.

Gomorrah hits are public massacres. If the target is one man inside a crowded cafe, the gunman enters with a machine gun and grenades. Buildings are coming down.

Between and after several retaliatory attacks (my favorite character is killed rather quickly), the show transitions into “a grim, detailed, quotidian drama about the inner workings of organized crime,” as the New York Times noted.

“The story line is dark, and so is the screen… the show makes a fetish of low light and shadow. Its most characteristic scenes are… small groups of nervous or celebratory men meeting in the dark. They gather on street corners, in crowded discos and in abandoned buildings that serve as drug markets, their faces obscured or invisible. Even during the day, they’re in curtained rooms or prison cells."

The cinematography and lighting adroitly cue in on the show’s larger tones of loneliness and desolation in “a depiction of the Neapolitan environment as rubble-filled, overgrown and derelict…" Scenes unfold within and amid "faceless, towering apartment blocks that recall the settings of Italian neorealist films, though touches of lyricism creep in," with one beach scene even described as creating "the background feel like early Fellini."

Contrast the poverty with the boss's home, where it's all about glint, gold, glitz and the finest looking (and comfy) couch and furniture.  The interior's lavishness includes one oddly revealing touch that shouts quietly: all is not well here...  It's an absurd, exaggerated, garishly colored painted depiction of the powerful monarch, his wife and son, and it makes one wonder if a certain someone not only has bad taste in fine art, but has lost touch with a layer of their reality.

Imma, left, and the boss Pietro.
One of Gomorrah's major dynamics involves Gennaro, aka "Genny" (Salvatore Esposito), the seemingly spoiled son of Savastano godfather Pietro, who is being groomed to succeed his father. It appears that Gennaro's time may come too soon, his father realizes. He appoints Ciro the strategist to look after his son. Pietro is removed from the milieu abruptly and is in a difficult position, having to call the shots from afar. This is where Gomorrah's other main character blooms -- Pietro's wife/Gennaro's mother, Imma, leverages opportunities to fill the clan's power void. She's no Carmella Soprano, she's a part of the Camorra's world -- in blood, body and soul.

I passionately disagree with one review that says Gomorrah "doesn’t glamorize the violence in the same way that The Sopranos has done in the past." The Sopranos never glamorized violence: the violence was so appalling, I nearly stopped watching the show after a particularly brutal murder in season three.

Gomorrah realistically depicts the abject poverty of the Cammora's Naples, where the young males have zero opportunities to find meaningful employment. Enter, the Mafia. The lure of fast cash and a stylish life can be very strong where starvation is the norm. But considering the price ultimately paid, they're better off starving.

Again, this show is not The Sopranos. 

You won't view stylishly edited montages or flashbacks; there's no great soundtrack playing in the background. Gomorrah is all about semi-shaky handheld camera shots, scenes that sluggishly play out against backdrops of a post-apocalyptic netherworld, where decrepit buildings that uncannily resemble a sloppy stack of  pancakes rise up  into the bleakness.

Here's an example of the difference in terms of content: There's a scene in which Pietro wonders if he should give Genny a promised Scooter. Wife Imma tells him not to, Genny's spoiled enough. The scene ends. In The Sopranos, we can imagine the argument Tony and Carmella would be required to have...

The show puts you in the same headspace as that alien world's inhabitants.