The way the Italian mob drama Gomorrah mows down men — relentlessly and efficiently — it’s a wonder there are any males aged 16 and over left alive in Naples. Based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s critically lauded 2006 exposé and Matteo Garrone’s award-winning 2008 film of the same name, the new SundanceTV series continues its predecessors’ deglamorization project of illustrating how organized crime’s mass violence and institutional corruption have made certain regions in Italy a living hell.
On an ordinary night, a wife enters a bedroom. As soon as she closes the door, she hears a crash in the dining room she’s just left. She opens the door to find her husband lying on the floor, his bullet-exploded head encircled by a thick moat of his own blood. If we ever learned his name or his misdeeds, they don’t matter. What counts is that he was alive, and then he wasn’t. She had a husband, and then she didn’t. The same scenario keeps happening — at other apartments, at warehouses, stores, cafés, children’s soccer games. The nonstop feuding between rival gangs makes life as disposable as piss.
Brutally unsentimental and coldly topographic, Gomorrah the film gained its strength from its refusal to humanize any of its characters — the main character was the destructive mayhem wrought by the Camorra, i.e., the Napoli Mafia. Debuting tonight (August 24), the TV adaptation takes a similar approach, to less powerful, often tedious effect. The deliberate hindrance of characterization, along with the show’s narrative and literal opacity, mostly makes for 12 hours of alienation. It makes you realize how dull a bird’s-eye view probably is most of the time.
Gomorrah cracks open the same way The Sopranos does — with a crisis in leadership — but at its best, it unfolds much more like The Wire, explaining how crime undermines the entirety of civic society through graft. And like that Baltimore-set series, it leaves viewers stranded in the middle of the action, confident that we’ll sort ourselves out. The pilot almost feels like a challenge: How much confusion are you willing to abide in order to watch this show? The dialogue is sparse, and the plot in the first half-dozen hours could fit neatly into a movie’s first act: Gray-haired godfather Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino) gets arrested, opening up a power vacuum. His only son — the chubby mama’s boy Genny (Salvatore Esposito), pronounced “Jenny” — is the very picture of dynastic decline. Ordered by Don Pietro to toughen up his son (i.e., get him to kill some dude), young right-hand man Ciro (Marco D’Amore) is determined to serve as the strict (but somehow also deferential) older brother that Genny clearly needs. That this drip-drip slow, largely protagonist-less series is reportedly Italy’s most popular TV show seems less a testament to Gomorrah’s powers of enthrallment than the appeal of its subject.
It’s not until Episode 7, when Don Pietro’s wife, Imma (Maria Pia Calzone), attempts to take the reins from her son and his adviser, that Gomorrah finally justifies itself as a serialized story. Even then, the writers’ withholding of their characters’ thoughts and feelings beyond the obvious (“Bitch!”) rebuff our desire to get invested in the show. The second half of the season does offer more traditional pleasures, but there’s little beyond the detached aesthetic that feels new. The many moody walking and driving scenes might win the art-house portion of the audience over, but I just wanted them to get to their destination already.
SundanceTV has recently imported other European dramas like The Returned from France and Deutschland 83 from Germany, and the anthropological details in these foreign shows are as fascinating as the storytelling. (The network has already announced it will air the second of Gomorrah’s four seasons.) In Gomorrah, there’s the open racism and hypermasculine bravado we’ve come to expect from the Mafia. A machine-gun massacre in an African neighborhood has one mobster shrugging, “You blacks are all the same at night,” and the Camorra’s battles with immigrant gangs display some of the most virulent anti-black hate I’ve ever seen in on-screen fiction. Just as interesting are the everyday facets of armed life: that wives of the Don don’t need to wait in line in prison, that priests won’t give last rites to gangsters who die with guns in their hands, and that men who kiss each other on the cheeks, or even the mouths, as signs of affection are more than willing to kill their friends based on an unfounded hunch. But the painful truth that announces itself most assertively by the end of the season is the cloud of hopelessness that traps all the inhabitants of this land of fatherless boys, so thick and so toxic no one can see anything beyond it.