Discovering ‘Gomorrah’: The Italian Crime Story Comes To The US

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To describe Gomorrah as a massive success in its home country would be to underestimate its impact on popular culture. The show, which airs on Sky Atlantic – and is therefore theoretically available solely to Sky subscribers – has become a national phenomenon, rivalled only by HBO’s Game of Thrones. Lines of dialogue have turned into instant catchphrases, and a whole country has found itself trying to mimic the sing-song cadence and growling delivery of the actors, and Neapolitan comedy ensemble The Jackal have built their fortune on Gomorrah parody sketches.
Sundance TV has picked up both season: the first two episodes air on Wednesday, August 24th. Here’s why you should watch it.

A classical tragedy told in modern tones

The tale of the powerful Savastano clan, torn apart by ruthless ambition and generational conflict, has the solemn pacing of Greek theater and the brutality of the true crime stories on which it is based, as told by Roberto Saviano in his international bestseller. Saviano is also the mind behind the serialized adaptation of Gomorrah, which marks a sharp departure from Matteo Garrone’s film of the same name: Garrone’s work had the stark brutality and staccato rhythm of quasi-documentary fiction and was mostly acted in a local dialect so unintelligible it required subtitles even for native Italian speakers. Gomorrah the series opts for a softer choice of language, one that draws on the work of great Neapolitan playwrights such as Eduardo De Filippo.

This classic story of power and betrayal is told through a mix of high-adrenaline action sequences and long, slow-burning sequences that are reminiscent of Scandinavian cinema. Gomorrah takes its time building its world in minute detail only to smash it down and build it again.

There are no good guys

Even a vicious universe like the one in Game of Thrones has its heroes, the good guys one can root for. Gomorrah has none: the story is told entirely through the eyes of murderous criminals, chiefly (in Season 1) camorra boss Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino), his only son and heir Gennaro (known as “Genny” and played by Salvatore Esposito), and Ciro Di Marzio (Marco D’Amore), an ambitious young upstart whom Donna Imma (Maria Pia Calzone), Pietro’s wife, does not trust. The police is largely absent from the picture: everyone, or nearly everyone, is a monster. In the world depicted by Gomorrah, crime is everyone’s day job and killing something you will have to do, eventually, so you want to start getting used to it. Even those who don’t seem to be cut out for it will have to fit in, eventually, most often in a traumatic manner.

This might make for a deeply unlikable show, but here’s the thing: when everyone is a monster, their humanness starts showing in the cracks of that monstrosity. Every single character on Gomorrah has a weak spot, issues they have to deal with, loved ones they want to protect and are willing to die for. Family – the one you’re born with and the one you choose for yourself – is the backbone of the story.

Much of the sinister beauty of Gomorrah is in the acting: Fortunato Cerlino, Marco D’Amore, Salvatore Esposito, Maria Pia Calzone, Marco Palvetti (who plays Salvatore Conte, the sleek, pious head of a rival clan) and – in Season 2 – Cristiana Dell’Anna and Cristina Donadio work wonders with a script that is often based on wordless exchanges and only rarely relies on exposition.

This is Italy, too

The Italy American tourists dream of and may have visited while on holiday is very likely a lovely, intensely sexy place, one where ancient history is always around the corner and even the smallest country village has a beauty spot of sorts. Shot mostly on location in the impoverished Neapolitan suburbs of Scampia and Secondigliano (the run-down horror of the Le Vele housing project in Scampia is a recurring establishing shot), Gomorrah shows you a side of Italy that is rarely seen even by Italians themselves. To put it bluntly: if you’ve ever done drugs while on holiday on the Amalfi coast, this is what got you the coke you snorted. Gomorrah may be fiction, but the bloody turf wars, the shady deals and the endless violence are real.

Gomorrah airs on Sundance TV on Wednesday, August 24th at 10/9c: here’s the full official trailer.


This post was originally published in Panel and Frame: follow it for more authentic voices in Comics, Literature, Film, and Art!

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