After reading this review and when you sit back to watch the box set of “Gomorrah The Series,” take some time out to remember just how much some writers have to suffer for their art. Back in 2006 the young Italian journalist Roberto Saviano decided to blow the lid on the Neapolitan Mafia, the Camorra. His book “Gomorrah” sold over 10 million copies; in 2008 it spawned a critically acclaimed film of the same title and is now the vitally important television series that makes the mastery of “The Sopranos” look like a children’s show. In retrospect Saviano regrets the, “Ambition” that drove him to write his stunning exposé, a classic example of the New Italian Epic that utilises an Unidentified Narrative Object (UNO), an act that landed him a Camorra death sentence and a lifetime under Police protection in New York.
Writing for the “Hindustan Times” in 2008 Indrajit Hazra brilliantly sums up Saviano’s book– “unlike Truman Capote’s ‘fact+fiction=faction’ and its obsessive hankering for details, the UNO slithers about like a beast, sometimes trodding the path of hard reportage, sometimes flipping over into personal mutterings, sometimes tripping on philosophical ruminations, sometimes diving into novelistic ‘voices’ and sometimes gearing into social theory. And unlike Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘gonzo journalism’, it’s dead serious. The UNO’s only purpose is to get us reacting violently on a subject using all the tricks known in the narrating trade.”
When Saviano came under attack from Silvio Berlusconi and other prominent Italian politicians for daring to show Italy’s dark underbelly he was defended by Nobel Prize winners of the stature of Orhan Pamuk, Dario Fo, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Desmond Tutu, Günter Grass and Mikhail Gorbachev. Despite keeping such distinguished company, Saviano expressed the bittersweet taste of success in a recent Telegraph interview with Benji Wilson, “I’d change everything. I wouldn’t do any of it again. I wouldn’t live my life like this. The only thing I wanted to do was write a book. The rest of it has sort of been a mess. But now that I’ve done that, I will never give them [the Camorra] a moment’s peace – my role is to expose and to analyse, and through so doing to keep reminding these people that I am here, and I am not going away.”
This deep-rooted fatalism is fundamental to the infernal power that “Gomorrah The Series” exerts over the spectator. Knowing that Saviano’s own life is so intrinsically intertwined with those of his characters increases the sense of dread felt when we drop in momentarily on a seemingly minor character. These are often teenagers on the periphery of the violence perpetrated by the central Savastano clan who dominate the Vele di Scampia (Sails of Scampia), failed housing projects that look like the rusting wrecks of ocean liners run aground and a powerful metaphor for a whole class of Neapolitans left stranded economically by the Italian authorities. As soon as the clan visit the smallest favour or gift on these young residents by the we know they are doomed, the clock is ticking on their pitiful lives and we are reduced to morbid tourists who have ventured too far from the picture post card image of Italy.
The Savastano clan thrives in this sea of abandonment, a pseudo government that dominates the residents from the cradle to the grave by their own collusion and bolstered by the wholesale corruption of the local officials. Headed by the stone-faced Don Pietro Savastano, the clan is in the process of making a cold war hot against rival boss Salvatore Conte and his monopoly on the drug supply through Spain. Don Pietro’s feudal power is in a precarious position as he has an heir in the childish Gennaro (a dead ringer for Vincent D’Onofrio in “Full Metal Jacket”) but no spare to back up his son’s reckless behavior. The closest Don Pietro has to a suitably ruthless successor is the Machiavellian foot soldier Ciro, the bridge between the older members of the clan and the young upstarts who hang out with Gennaro in nightclubs and on motorbikes and scooters. In turn Gennaro’s mother, Lady Imma, a woman who wouldn’t be out of place in a blood stained Greek tragedy, despises Ciro and is suspicious of his friendship with her son.
“Gomorrah” the film pushed the boundaries of the ultra realism of Alan Clarke in films like “The Firm,” and “Elephant” by using long steadicam takes to make the spectator complicit in the Camorra’s many crimes, a willing observer often undermined by a brutal punch line that forced us to rethink our relationship with the gangster genre. The film did away with non-diegetic music or a “Goodfellas” style voice over that would have helped the audience keep track of the large number of characters. We were forced to fill in the blanks as we followed five protagonists all at various ranks within the Camorra, against the backdrop of a clan war in which the combatants are largely faceless and irrelevant except for the unseen terror they exert over the population. The anti-climatic ending in a dead end beach bar is possibly the most nihilistic expression of hopelessness in contemporary cinema.
Stylistically, “Gomorrah The Series” approaches its nihilism from a totally different angle. Much of the series is shot hand held allowing the audience to experience the frantic desperation of many of the characters and specifically Gennaro’s wild state of mind. The score by the post-rock/psychedelic group Mokadelic is an abstract nightmare that often becomes the series’ UNO, a perfect interpretation of the urban horror that unfolds in Naples everyday. Similar to the film the series often introduces characters in a casual manner and dignifies the audience with a vast amount of intelligence allowing them to piece together the past relationships. However the more traditional character development afforded the main protagonists makes the series even more morally unsettling than the film as we find ourselves siding with a man who has burnt a young teenage girl to death after torturing her.
“Gomorrah The Series” then is a breathtaking, heart stopping achievement that has arrived in the golden age of episodic television and in true Camorra fashion usurped all the other major players. The complex vendettas between the main rivals are an utterly terrifying take on any number of Shakespearian plays from “Julius Caesar,” via “Macbeth” and through to “Titus Andronicus.” The complete despair that permeates every episode of the first season is a desperate cry for help from a region of Italy that has been abandoned by God. The title comes from a text written by a priest, Giuseppe Diana who was shot twice in the head by the Camorra in March 1994, “Time has come to stop being a Gomorrah.”