One of the more perplexing aspects to this job is the figuring out of why some series are available here, then not, and then reappear on some other platform. Often readers write to ask when and where some show they’ve read about will be available in Canada. And often I simply don’t know. I certainly don’t know why Gomorrah, the classic Italian crime series, disappeared. Four seasons have been made and a fifth is coming.
Well, Gomorrah is now back. It’s on Hollywood Suite (a channel on free preview this month), with the first three seasons right now and seasons four and five coming soon. The channel, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, uses the slogan “For The Love of Movies” but has smartly invested in good international TV series recently, including the big-budget and controversial Israeli TV series Valley of Tears.
Watching Gomorrah now is both a treat and a troubling reminder of the reality behind it. Everything started with writer Roberto Saviano’s 2006 non-fiction book Gomorrah: A Personal Journey into the Violent International Empire of Naples’ Organized Crime System. A film version appeared to acclaim in 2008 directed by Matteo Garrone. What’s really worth knowing, mind you, is that Saviano has lived under police protection since 2006. In a piece he wrote for The Guardian in 2015 he said, “It’s been more than eight years since I took a train, or rode a Vespa, took a stroll or went out for a beer.” He knew too much and had written too vividly about the real members of the Camorra crime gangs in Naples. They were public about wanting him dead.
The series is strikingly low-key and realistic, and will suddenly burst forth into tragic melodrama, and has a visual panache that becomes a distinct part of the texture. We are thrown into the world of the Savastano crime family, who are about to send a dire warning to the leader of a rival gang. Their aim is to burn him alive while he’s at home with his mother. Naturally, this leads to a reprisal, a shooting in a café. And, naturally, the Savastano gang strikes back again.
This means there is action galore at intervals, but Gomorrah never glamourizes it. If anything, it distills the action into a doleful compound of despair and anxiety, emphasizing the repetitive, near-pointless cycle of violence. Everything happens in a Naples that’s a crumbling concrete jungle of dilapidated tower blocks, squalid streets and ugly motorways. It looks like those places where vermin thrive.
But they are, of course, people. At first the central figure is Ciro (Marco D’Amore in a towering performance) a tough, bullet-headed enforcer who is just a little bit wary of the tactics of his boss, Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino). He thinks they’re too blatant and too many of his colleagues are dying in pointless tit-for-tat attacks. But he also knows that speaking out against the boss could get him killed. Besides, he’s friends with Don Pietro’s son, Genny (Salvatore Esposito) and a reluctant mentor to the young man.
What happens is mostly at night, when Naples shimmers and ominous shadows are everywhere. The look is breathtaking at times. The characters are subdued figures, simply doing their jobs, except for Don Pietro, whose rants suggest his paranoia is out of control. What is enthralling is the quietness of it, the sense that this isn’t an imagined world but a found-world of low-life criminals and their sometimes-demented bosses. The main business is drug selling but it slowly becomes clear that these criminal gangs have fingers in every pocket of life, from the highest reaches of business and politics to the grubby cafés on back streets.
Gomorrah has received grudging praise in the United States over the past few years. It’s been grudging because there’s a portion of opinion-rulers in the culture who adhere to the belief that the Italian crime-family saga has been done best already. The Godfather movies and the Sopranos cannot be outdone by a movie and series from Italy. That’s not true. Gomorrah is distinguished by being specific to Italy and drenched in Italian storytelling. If anything, the closest comparison is to The Wire, with its deep sense of knowing a city, right down to the most mundane of addicts and thieves in the nooks and crannies. It asks the viewer to pay attention to everything, not merely to the headliners and the winners in this crepuscular world.
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