It’s fitting that a great crime family show about mafia Dons and their ruthless crime families finally comes from Italy. The series, Gomorrah, has been touted as the most popular show there, and has finally made its way to our shores on SundanceTV, the channel for the foreign TV you otherwise wouldn’t know about (see France’s The Returned, Germany’s Deutschland 83, and Australia’s Cleverman as three recent examples). Like these other series, Gomorrah asks of its viewers to both read and watch, though the subtitles can be helpful in a series where so many people are obscured in shadow or lurking in darkness. The darkness is both literally and metaphorical, of course, and it is above all pervasive.
Gomorrah focuses on the Neapolitan crime syndicate the Camorra (specifically here the Savastano clan), and is based on a movie that was itself based on a non-fiction book written by infiltrator Roberto Saviano, who is still under policy protection because of it. But even if you didn’t know its history, Gomorrah drips with authenticity in the way it portrays its gangsters not through glitz and glamour (although there is some), but rather in the slums, in jails, and with the paranoia and constant posturing for power that comes with controlling a flourishing cocaine trade.
The Savastanos are headed up by Don Pietro, played with wonderfully menacing exactitude by Fortunato Cerlino (even though he’s clothed in spectacles and dad sweaters), but the story is a slowly-revealed chess game between him and his loyal henchman Ciro (Marco D’Amore). The young Ciro is smart, fierce, and ambitious, the opposite of Don Pietro’s son Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito). But the organization’s hierarchy being what it is, Gennaro remains his father’s heir regardless of the fact that he’s not ready (and most likely never will be), which creates a rift among Don Pietro’s faithful, especially after he’s jailed and Gennaro starts creating his own group of young followers.
Ciro is caught in the middle, questioning the methods of both men, and seeing an opportunity to potentially take over. But Gomorrah also examines the extreme loyalty that is embedded in these crime syndicates and its price, as well as the feeling of being trapped, especially for those like Gennaro who were never meant for that life, and yet, never had a choice.
Some have called Gomorrah Italy’s version of The Wire, but The Wire went beyond criminal organizations to show the inner workings of the police, schools, local politics, and newspapers through deeply considered character portraits. And though both series do share a love of highlighting grim institutions with almost alarming bleakness, Gomorrah lacks The Wire’s humor and levity that are needed to mitigate the darkness. The comparison is apt, however, in the way both shows have a dogged desire to portray criminal organizations through grit and minutia rather than a shiny veneer of excess.
Throughout its first season (of 13 episodes — Season 2 is already airing overseas), Gomorrah’s story doesn’t break any new ground in the way it’s structured (a powerful Don, his ruthless wife, their soft son, and a young upstart who could change everything), but the way it tells its story is a new and refreshing twist on the genre. The reverence Don Pietro gets from those in jail, in the slums, and in areas where his drug trade rule the streets also portray the quiet desperation of a forgotten class of people. But you won’t find any heroes here. Like its Biblical namesake, Gomorrah is not a story of redemption, but of corruption and destruction.
Rating: ★★★ Good – Una serie degna di guardare (a series worth watching)
Gomorrah premieres Wednesday, August 24th on SundanceTV.