The Sundance Channel import Gomorrah, about mob warfare in present-day Naples, is one of the most mundane takes on gangster life that you’re likely to see outside of a true-crime documentary, or maybe that scene in Donnie Brasco where Al Pacino’s aging sad-sack of a mobster tries to make his monthly nut by trying to break open a parking meter. With its preference for handheld shots and natural sound, its disinterest in time-compressing montages, and its tendency to let all of its scenes, from conversations to murders, unfold without soundtrack music, Gomorrah seems to be striving after a documentary aesthetic, and for the most part, the “you are there” tricks work quite well. The layer-cake storytelling structure owes a bit to The Wire, focusing on street-level mob feuding at first, then widening its scope as it goes along to show how the gangsters both spread and embody corruption in other areas of their society.
In some ways this Italian series is an improvement on the same-named 2008 theatrical feature, which at 137 minutes felt either too long or too short, depending on whether you thought that the non-mob stories added or detracted from the story of a young criminal determined to get initiated by a local crew. (The movie is worth seeing anyway, if only for the sake of comparison; both dramatizations are based on the 2006 nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, who infiltrated the Neapolitan mafia and has been harassed and threatened since.) The TV version of Gomorrah feels like an antihero-driven American crime drama that would have been unveiled with great fanfare ten or more years ago. It periodically returns to vendetta-driven story lines, goosing viewer interest with gunplay, explosions, and close-quarters brutality, in prisons, in restaurants, even in residential homes. If your main complaint about The Sopranos was that there was too much about suburban entitlement and psychiatry and not enough scenes where people discuss how they’re going to kill somebody and then kill them, this show is made for your needs.
The tale begins with Ciro (Marco D’Amore) and Attilio (Antonio Milo), a mentor and his pupil, at a gas station, grousing about the ungrateful and social-media-distracted mentality of modern youth. These two mobsters serve as our entry point to an organization wracked by internal resentments. The boss is Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino), a sharp-witted, humorless man who seems to have an antenna for disrespect. Pretty much everyone has a gripe about how he’s running things, and some of them plot to undermine him or steal what they believe is their rightful share of his fortune. There’s a fascinating tension between Pietro’s hot-tempered son, Genny (Salvatore Esposito), the Sonny Corleone of this scenario, and Pietro’s still-young wife, Imma (Maria Pia Calzone), who is now one of his trusted advisers but seems to have started out as a trophy wife and/or babe; kitschy celebrations of her beauty hang in her husband’s mansion, a Ba’ath-party-looking eyesore decorated in shades of gold and brown. It’s clear from the jump that the chain of command isn’t functioning too well; guys keep trying to hit internal and external foes without clearance from higher up, which of course inspires retaliations, which themselves inspire more retaliations. We have to hit back, otherwise everyone will think we’re weak: It’s in this mentality that vendettas are born and perpetuated.
As the story unfolds, we get a sense of how the organization, which is known as Camorra, operates: How the drug money flows upward from slums filled with African immigrants all the way to executive suites where it’s laundered. Everybody in this world seems to be complicit in the mob’s dealings, whether they admit it or not. The larger point of this miniseries, like the feature film that inspired it, is that capitalist societies turn gangsters into folk heroes because they embody the capitalist impulse in its purest form. Their primitive machismo and crude bluntness is so arresting that it lets the men in the executive suites, who manipulate and steal fortunes far greater than anything a gangster could dream of, look somehow “respectable” in comparison. It’s not a new idea, certainly, but it’s a true one, and it’s articulated with intelligence in this series, which was developed for television by Saviano, Giovanni Bianconi, Stefano Bises, Leonardo Fasoli, and Ludovico Rampoldi. The show deserves credit for being unrelentingly tense without seeming to glamorize any of its violent characters. You may admire the cunning and tenacity of the combatants, but somewhere in the back of your mind you’re grateful that you can eat a meal in peace without somebody trying to kill you or your mother. It’s a lie to say that crime doesn’t pay, but the hidden costs are immense.