Review: Italy’s most popular TV show, ‘Gomorrah,’ gets imported courtesy of Sundance
Danish, French, German, Spanish and now Italian — subtitled foreign dramas aren’t just for art-house theaters anymore.
In the last few years, American television has taken on Rosetta Stone tendencies with multilingual originals (Netflix’s “Narcos,” USA’s “Queen of the South”) and artisanal imports (the Danish politicos of LinkTV’s “Borgen,” the super-French zombies of “The Returned” and German spies of “Deutschland 83” on Sundance TV).
On Wednesday, SundanceTV continues global expansion with what is being billed as Italy’s most popular television show ever. (The second season has already aired, and Seasons 3 and 4 have been confirmed.) “Gomorrah” tells the story of the fictional Savastano family as it struggles to maintain its status and drug territory among rival Neapolitan clans.
A classic mob tale, in other words, but this time in the original Italian. And that, as any scholar will tell you, makes all the difference.
Aggressively dark, focused to the point of claustrophobia and often all but choking on its own authenticity, “Gomorrah” shocks the system like a real Italian espresso after years of skinny vanilla lattes.
Certainly in the years following “The Sopranos,” television has spent an inordinate amount of time examining the drama and disorder of organized crime. But even in the grit-obsessed world of modern television, sentiment inevitably lurks beneath the sediment; the darkest antiheroes are softened by tragic backstories, dreams of a “normal” life or relationships that must be protected from their criminal activities.
Not so the populace of “Gomorrah,” which, though rigorously human, is breathtakingly short on sentiment. Like the critically lauded 2008 film, the 2014 series is based on the book by journalist Roberto Saviano, who spent years reporting on the Camorra in and around Naples; the fact that, 10 years after its publication, Saviano remains in hiding tells you all you need to know about the veracity of the tale, and the sort of people it involves.
Their power is real not metaphoric, and the self-interest that drives it is far more squalid than it is poetic.
Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino, late of “Hannibal”), grim-faced and ruthless behind his fatherly specs, is a midcareer mobster beset by increased scrutiny from police and neighborhood watch groups and plagued by a rival gangster, Conte (Marco Palvetti), who has elbowed into Savastano territory.
An attempt to send Conte an old-school message leads to many complications, including dissension in the ranks, increased visibility and a potential turf war for which Pietro feels unprepared. His son Genny (Salvatore Esposito) is soft, sweet and dim, his wife Imma (Maria Pia Calzone) is apparently more concerned with getting a new sofa than facing reality.
Increasingly, Pietro leans on Ciro (Marco D’Amore), whose skills have earned him the nickname “The Immortal.”
Tasked with preparing Genny to take his father’s place, Ciro is the closest thing “Gomorrah” has to a hero, which is not very close. Presented as being torn between the fear that Don Pietro is losing his grip and loyalty to the clan, Ciro may mourn a dead comrade and appear genuinely fond of Genny, but that loyalty is based more on opportunity and self-preservation than emotional ties.
All the various pressures create a perfect storm that lands Pietro in jail. Though his status is far more solid there than on the outside, his absence creates a power vacuum filled, in turns, by Ciro, Genny and Imma.
So not a new story, but in “Gomorrah,” familiarity breeds relief rather than contempt. On a purely logistical level, the subtitles and the general dimness of the production palette require a viewer’s full attention — if you don’t speak Italian, there’s no stepping away for snacks. Miss one sentence fragment and suddenly you’re looking at a car filled with unhappy men prepared to do terrible things and you have no idea why. So it’s nice to have a baseline understanding of the plot.
But those expecting the genre’s traditional hallmarks — the quasi-glamorous top-notes of “The Godfather,” the suburban “normalcy” of “The Sopranos” or even a glimpse of picturesque Naples — are in for a shock.
These gangsters are not dandified restaurant-goers, sipping red wine and adjusting their cuff links before briefly breaking out the automatic weaponry or baseball bats, nor are they battling angst while leading a “normal” double life in waste management.
Crime is the “normal” of this unlovely section of Naples where the luxury of the don’s house exists, but only within a bunker. “Gomorrah,” produced by Sky Italia, has no truck with conflicted morality — no one trying to “get out” of the business, at least not in early episodes; murder is simply part of the job, loyalty a calculation of familiarity, fear and profit.
As an early scene in which children play “lookout” makes it magnificently clear, the crime here may be organized, but it is not compartmentalized.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
8:35 a.m.: The story was updated with production information.
This article was originally published at 3 a.m.