Their Thing: thoughts on the Italian TV crime series Gomorrah

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WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS

Troglodytes

Somewhere in Italy, I imagine the author Roberto Saviano is tapping away at his laptop while outside his heavily armed police bodyguards sip coffee and play scopa to pass the time.

Such is the price you pay when you write a blistering exposé of the Camorra – although if Matteo Salvini, the country’s far-right interior minister, has his way, Saviano may soon be on his own.

Going underground: Gennaro Savastano (Salvatore Esposito)

It’s now 13 years since Saviano’s book Gomorrah exposed the murky, ultra-violent world of the Neapolitan mafia and earned him death threats from the organisation’s godfathers. Last week, after a month-long binge, I watched the last episode of the fourth series of the TV show based on the book (and the play and the film). It ended with the anti-hero mobster Gennaro Savastano voluntarily holed up in a hidden bunker, his meaningful stare into the camera lens suggesting series five is on its way.

By my calculations Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito) is the only character to have survived this long, although the inference from this final scene – and the series as a whole – is that survival in this world is not necessarily desirable.

We are always told that crime is not glamorous, yet Gomorrah portrays a particularly dismal, bovine existence in which criminals rake millions from the drug trade yet choose to live amid the dripping, garbage-infested squalor of the Secondigliano housing projects of northern Naples. They have bad haircuts, horrible clothes and fill their rooms with kitsch furniture.

In S1 Ep1 we are introduced to Gennaro’s dad, Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino), the capo di tutti capi, whose house is bigger than everyone else’s but surrounded by 15ft concrete walls and patrolled by tattooed men carrying machine guns. The stress levels are through the gilded ceiling at all times.

In short, according to Gomorrah, la Cosa Loro is shit. The clue is in the title. And maybe that’s what so upset the godfathers about Roberto Saviano’s book. After all, it’s Their Thing. Who are we to judge? In S4 Gennaro tries to go straight in Rome, but barely puts up a fight when circumstances offer him the opportunity to abandon his wife and child and return to Naples. Down in his subterranean cell he is at close enough to Secondigliano for its stench to seep through the air vent. His look to camera also suggests he is happy to be home.

And in dramatic terms we are happy, too. The S4 episodes in which the newly-respectable family man cuts deals with financiers in his bid to build “Italy’s second-largest airport” are perhaps the weakest of the entire show. The section set in London, in which Gennaro is scammed of £30m in gold bullion by a couple of Mayfair toffs, is frankly ludicrous.

By S4 we are trained to expect violence. When Gennaro solves a dispute with his lawyer rather than with his gun or his fists, we feel betrayed.  This is where Gomorrah has brought us. We are all Secondigliano troglodytes now.

 

Ciro and Iago

But all this is a long way off when we first meet Gennaro. Indeed in S1, he is a peripheral figure, a cowed and bleating mummy’s boy living in the shadow of his domineering father. He is a whack just waiting to happen.

Troubled killer: Ciro di Marzio (Marco d’Amore)

The real star is the enigmatic Ciro (Marco d’Amore), a shaven-headed foot soldier whose murderous ambition gradually morphs into a crisis of conscience, of sorts. Through his eyes (or rather through the lenses of his expensive sunglasses) we see Their Thing for what it really is: a hardscrabble existence, punctuated by sudden death, in which anyone with two brain cells to rub together can reach the top.

Ciro has plenty of brains, which is why we see him become increasingly frustrated at his inability to get on. But independent thought is a cause for suspicion among organised crime bosses, who prefer their rottweilers to be mute and on a tight leash. Relegated down the ranks by Don Pietro, Ciro simmers and plots while Gennaro, his initially dim-witted protégé, climbs the ladder because of who he is.

As viewers of TV drama we are conditioned to having at least one character we can root for, and in Gomorra it is Ciro. But at the same time it’s like watching Othello and feeling sorry for Iago. Ciro may be left a broken man when his daughter is shot dead by one of Don Pietro’s henchmen, yet in the previous episode he is seen strangling his own wife, and one loses count of the number of children he has summarily orphaned with his 9mm.

Ciro has no redeeming features. Nobody does in Secondigliano. They exist, they hustle, they get whacked. We just shrug and move on.

This is where Gomorrah has brought us. Their Thing has become Our Thing.

 

A death foretold

An awful lot of people get whacked in Gomorra. The preferred method of execution is two to the chest and a coup de grace in the skull. In one episode, a body is thrown into a freshly dug hole in a quarry and blown up with a stick of dynamite – but this seems excessively cautious. No matter how high the bodies pile up, there isn’t a policeman to be seen in Naples.

Season 2 is particularly deadly. By the end, and with the exception of Ciro and Gennaro, everyone we have come to know is dead. Even Don Pietro gets it, outside the mausoleum where his murdered wife has recently been interred.

This is the end: Don Pietro, left, gets his in the cemetery, courtesy of a vengeful Ciro

The effect of this relentless culling on the viewer is twofold: first, we understand that life is cheap in Secondigliano; second, we understand that there is no point in getting invested in any of the characters because they will soon be dead.

Maybe the writers were exhausted with all the killing, or maybe they were just more confident in what they are writing, but S3 shows a marked and welcome change of pace. Broken Ciro is in self-imposed exile in Bulgaria, while Gennaro has returned from a traumatic trip to the jungles of South America a changed man – and not for the better. We know their paths will eventually collide, but in the meantime their separate storylines provide us with a chance to get to know them better.

With everyone dead, a fresh roster of characters is introduced – and when some are still alive after two episodes, our hopes are raised that they may last the course, if not the series itself. Most don’t, but there are enough left on which to hang a decent storyline. The action moves out of claustrophobic Secondigliano and we learn more about the structure of the Camorra operation. For the first time, Gomorrah starts to take on epic qualities.

Even when Ciro gets whacked, it’s a case of taking one for the team.

 

Hiding from reality

The danger of binge-watching is that when you consume 48 episodes in a row, sometimes three in a night, you start to obsess over the things that might otherwise pass you by if you were watching one episode a week.

Earlier I mentioned the apparent absence of police in Naples, but I now realise I was wrong. In fact the entire storyline of S1 turns on Don Pietro’s arrest by a couple of traffic cops, and the effect of his subsequent incarceration on his organisation.

But other than a drugs bust by a squad of bent detectives at the start of S4, that’s the last we see of the carabinieri in any meaningful capacity. Even when Don Pietro is sprung from prison, resulting in the deaths of several officers, the apparent lack of interest in recapturing him is staggering. Where is the manhunt? Where are the raids on the towers? Admittedly the Don is forced into hiding, but the impression is he is more concerned about being found by his enemies than by the police.

Niceguys: despite it all, we root for Tony Soprano and his gang

A crucial plot-driver in The Sopranos – the show with which Gomorrah is inevitably compared – is the New Jersey Mob’s ongoing attempts to evade arrest by the FBI; and I found myself longing for a Neapolitan equivalent of that show’s world-weary Agent Harris to prove that even if they are ineffective, at least somebody with a badge cares about the havoc being wrought by organised crime on his patch.

Instead the lack of any discernible law enforcement starts to become irritating, because unlike Tony Soprano and his likeable wiseguys we want these Camorra bastards to feel the heat. If nothing else, it would add a new dimension to the show’s narrative, which by S4 is driven largely by gangsters having meetings in warehouses and under motorway flyovers.

 

There will be blood

Maybe the writers have something up their sleeve for S5. But, like his father, I get the feeling that whatever Gennaro is hiding from in his cellar, it is not the long arm of the law. In which case the prospect of yet another bloody gang war is dispiriting.

Don’t get me wrong: Gomorrah is great. The question is, where else can it go? It was a problem David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, solved by simply ending it – but when your show is being sold in over 170 countries, and is more popular than Game of Thrones in Italy, there is no way you are going to kill it off in a hurry.

Indeed there is not only a new series in the pipeline, a film revisiting the early days of Ciro is due to be released at Christmas.

I’m sure I’ll watch both. But at the same time part of me wishes I’d got it wrong about Gennaro’s look to the camera. That just maybe those cold, dead eyes were sending out a message that this was it, that there was no more; that the story was always going to end up here in this bleak cellar beneath the Secondigliano slums because, when all is said and done, this is what Gomorrah was always about.

 

 

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