New York Times: ‘Gomorrah’ Is Back, as Bloody (and Gripping) as Ever
The crime series is so popular in its native Italy that it has filtered into language and culture. Some critics decry its portrayal of Naples, while others praise its realism and universal themes.
ROME — A few minutes into the third season of "Gomorrah," the highly popular Italian television series about organized crime in Naples, which began streaming on HBO Max this month, the show's brooding protagonist muses on the recent death of his father.
"What killed him was the poison we all carry inside," says the mohawk-coiffed Gennaro "Genny" Savastano, played by Salvatore Esposito. "We know it's there, but we just can't spit it out."
That poison pulses through the veins of many of the characters in this ultra-dark series inspired by Roberto Saviano's best-selling 2007 reportage about the Neapolitan crime syndicate known as the Camorra.
Eventually, as viewers of a series that might seem to rival "Game of Thrones" when it comes to body counts know, that poison makes for few happy endings.
That may be inevitable in a tale told from the point of view of criminals (police and judicial authorities are deliberately absent) who cross and double- and triple-cross their friends, allies and even family members. These are not nice people.
It also makes for gripping viewing.
Since its Italian debut in 2014, the series has been sold in 150 countries, and audiences keep coming back for more. The fifth, and final, season of Italy's most successful television export is currently being shot in Naples and Rome.
"Gomorrah" has even infiltrated Italy's language and culture.
While it may not be the case, as one person involved in the production avowed, that Naples essentially shuts down when new episodes of the series debut (residents say that only happens when the soccer team is playing), in 2017 two episodes of the series were shown ahead of time to avoid conflicting with a Naples-Juventus match.
Nowadays, national news media regularly identify real gangland shootouts or particularly gruesome murders as "Gomorrah-style" executions.
And catchphrases from the show have slipped into daily conversation. Last August, one electoral candidate in the Campania region, where Naples is based, was criticized for using a "Gomorrah" slogan during his campaign (he lost his race).
When each new season starts in Italy — the first four have been broadcast on Sky — psychologists, law enforcement officers and magistrates weigh in with concerns about youngsters dressing like "Gomorrah" characters for Carnival or emulating the protagonists' hairdos and tattoos.
If parodies are the measure of a show's success, "Gomorrah" even managed to lighten the mood at the start of the coronavirus, with the online skits "Covmorra," in which the clans give up drug trafficking for the more lucrative trade in hand sanitizers.
In addition to inspiring the television series, Saviano's book was made into an acclaimed 2009 film by Matteo Garrone as well as a stage adaptation.
The authors and creators of "Gomorrah" believe that part of its success can be attributed to its authentic feel. Episodes are filmed on location and the dialogue is in the Neapolitan dialect. The show is even shown with subtitles in Italy.
"It is realistic both in form and aesthetic," said Claudio Cupellini, who has directed episodes since the first season.
From the beginning, its producers, Sky and the Italian production company Cattleya, took a documentary-type approach, by shooting on location and basing story lines on actual investigations carried out by prosecutors and police officers. That reality was then embellished by "the inventiveness of narrative," Cupellini said.
The lead writer of "Gomorrah," Leonardo Fasoli, said the series was based on real events. The first season followed a feud between once-friendly Camorra families that ended in a ferocious war, while the second was inspired by a violent turf war in the Neapolitan neighborhood of Scampia that had erupted during the filming of the first season.
Fasoli said he and his writing team stayed in touch with prosecutors, judges and police officers as well as residents of Scampia and similar neighborhoods to get the lay of the land. "There's a lot of research and documentation" behind each script, he said.
For Francesco Calderoni, a mafia expert who teaches at Sacred Heart University in Milan, a major flaw of the show is that "while they base everything on judicial sources, they don't include judicial action."
"It's a nice piece of entertainment," said Calderoni, but the near-absence of law enforcement figures "misrepresents reality."
"That's not how it works in Italy. It's simply wrong," he added. "The most likely outcome of individuals living the life is not being murdered but being jailed."
Mario Sesti, a film critic, said that the show's appeal was that it went beyond location and specific story lines to embrace a more epic narrative: the rise and fall of the gangster, a genre perfected in American cinema through the "Godfather" films and Martin Scorsese's work. There is also a Darwinian element to "Gomorrah" that transcended time or place, he said.
"It is closer to something primordial, tribes that face off against each other to control the territory," he said. "It can happen in Naples, but it can also happen in Mumbai or Brazil or Colombia or anywhere where the underworld substitutes the states and becomes a world unto itself."
He said drug trafficking was a "narrative algorithm" independent of language or place. "What's important is that the story can be shared throughout the world; the force of these series is globalization," he said.
If the show's success has been accompanied by criticisms that it glorifies gangland culture, Gomorrah's authors and creators counter that they didn't invent the Camorra, which dates back centuries.
"We explored the reality of something that exists. We lifted a carpet to show what was underneath," Cupellini said.
In writing about the third season of "Gomorrah" Aldo Grasso, the chief television critic of the Milan daily Corriere della Sera dismissed accusations that the series was counter-educational and exalted criminals — "as has already happened to other TV masterpieces (see the controversy on 'The Sopranos' and the negative representation of Italian Americans)" — as sterile polemics.
But, Grasso asked, what if "representing evil serves to understand it?"
Mayor Luigi de Magistris of Naples, a former anti-mafia prosecutor, said his main concern with "Gomorrah" is that foreigners might mistakenly identify the city with a lawless wasteland.
"The show is not a great calling card for Naples," de Magistris said.
The series, he said, reflects "a very thin slice" of Neapolitan reality, ignoring the city's vibrant cultural life and its efforts to combat organized crime. " 'Gomorrah' doesn't belong to us," he said in a telephone interview.
Last year, his administration tore down part of a run-down housing complex known as Le Vele ("The Sails") and a flourishing drug market in Scampia that form the backdrop for much of the first series.
The administration "worked to demolish a symbol of the lack of dignity, of degradation, a symbol of evil," de Magistris said. It was a strong message that gave back dignity to the inhabitants of the housing project, who, he said, "were damaged by the presence of the Camorra."