It is both paradoxical and telling that one of the best Italian TV series ever produced, “Boris” (2007-2010), was about a dysfunctional crew working on a cheap soap opera. The series revolved around an underpaid intern and the human circus of the set: Egomaniacal actors, half-assed directors, cocaine-addicted DPs and conniving producers working on a tv series they couldn’t care less about. In other words, the best Italian TV series ever made up to then was about how bad Italian serials were.
While that is by and large still the case, especially when it comes to serial products, things might be set to improve after the critically acclaimed debut of “Gomorrah.” Adapted from Roberto Saviano’s bestselling exposé of the Neapolitan mob (otherwise known as the Camorra), the 12 episode drama tracks Ciro (Marco d’Amore), as the streetwise foot soldier wages war to take over the criminal organization which rules over his world.
While “Gomorrah” was previously produced as a feature film, the serial nature of television turned out to be better suited to the investigative breadth of the original book. Produced by and broadcasted on Sky Italy, “Gomorrah” was directed by Stefano Sollima, who had already raised the bar of Italian TV drama with “Romanzo Criminale” (2008-2010) but here has set higher, exportable standards. Sold in more than 50 territories, “Gomorrah” has premiered in the UK to strong reviews and also been nabbed for US distribution by The Weinstein Company.
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When asked about its plans, TWC could not provide a definite answer as to where exactly American audiences would be able to watch the criminal saga. But the Italian media is abuzz over this an unprecedented achievement for the country’s television.
The project comes not from a national network, but a transglobal corporation. “Gomorrah” owes its origins to Saviano, the author of the original book who, while in New York City, took the time to appreciate American serials, sensing a new business opportunity for his franchise-like bestseller.
“I actually came on board after the idea had been already launched,” “Gomorrah” showrunner Stefano Sollima told Indiewire after the series’ successful national debut. “I was actually still working on ‘A.C.A.B’ [Sollima’s previous film, about a riot police unit], when I was asked to consider the project.”
Unlike most serial products, where the showrunner is usually the writer, with “Gomorrah” it was Sollima who ran the show. However, he shares the credit: “We worked all together very closely, the screenwriters as well the set and costume designers, director of photography, stunt coordinator and all the rest of the crew actually. It was a collective effort,” he explained.
Like pretty much anything else vaguely “controversial” taking place in Italy, the series’ release was preceded by worthless polemics about glorifying organized crime. But nothing turned out the way eager polemicists had foretold — in fact, quite the contrary. “Gomorrah”‘s non-sensationalistic accuracy speaks to the patient and in-depth research that went into the pre-production phases of the series.
“We did a lot of research, both off and on the field,” Sollima said. “It was vital for us to be as accurate and realistic as fiction can be. Saviano’s book was of course not only the source of the story we were telling but also a helpful guide into the realities of that story. But we had to enter that reality ourselves, research is not enough.”
The transition from the written word to filmed action proved to be eventful and enriching, despite the delicate nature of the subject matter and the unhelpful media climate that accompanied the production.
“We had many problems, especially with some of the local entities working in the territory [the Scampia area of Naples], who were understandably tired and frustrated with the inevitably negative depiction of their neighborhood,” Sollima said. “At the beginning it was hard. We had to gradually negotiate our presence on the territory and earn what I believe was the most important thing: The local peoples’ trust.”
For it is unthinkable to work in a city like Naples, one of the most fertile and lively epicenters of Italian culture, without actually involving the city itself into the creative process. While news crews only turn their cameras on when bullets hiss by and bodies drop lifeless, the social aspect of the city’s most disadvantaged areas is more complex and painfully rich than newscasters would have it (see the great documentary “The Man with the Megaphone,” shot in the same neighborhood as “Gomorrah”). “To be actually accepted by the locals was very important,” admitted Sollima. “To depict a world you first need to know it from within.”
The nuances that the series picks up are many and manifold, from the Neapolitan dialect to the local fashion — down to the smallest, seemingly superfluous detail. “I wanted to make the series I would have liked to watch,” Sollima said when asked about his influences. “I devour TV series, from ‘The Shield’ to ‘The Wire’ up to ‘True Detective’ and ‘House of Cards.’ There are actually too many for me to keep up.”
The series’ honesty in depicting the harsh realities of organized crime and the social circumstances that allows it to flourish in the first place (unemployment, poor education, etcetera) can hardly be overstated. The need to be as faithful as possible to the ruthless ineluctability of crime manifests itself in the absence of that classical narrative trope: the fight between good and evil.
“That was something I had to fight for,” Sollima said. “For me, the absence of totally likable, morally upright characters was essential to the realization of my vision for two reasons. Firstly, to depict things like they really are and secondly not to have a moral compass through which the audience would have judged the characters’ actions.”
“By not having a positive character to identify with,” he elaborated, “The spectator is forced to face and understand the characters’ moves and the inner logics that govern organized crime — that is, of a reality without hope.” The series manages to faithfully depict a social predicament wherein a life of crime is more an imposition than a choice, dictated by the absence of any other conceivable alternative.
The series also convincingly stages the institutional dimensions of organized crime, whereby the foot soldiers are nothing but the bottom of a profit-driven pyramid, a pyramid where, at the very top, the Camorra is politely referred to as “business.”
In this regard, Sollima was unequivocal. “The military side of things is just one part of the whole story — we wanted to show that organized crime has ramifications into the financial world, the global real estate market and so forth,” he said.
Adhering as authentically as possible to the ugly face of crime and its dynamics was also the reason behind the choice of unknown actors in leading roles. “Despite the generous budget we had at disposal, I wanted to work with fresh faces,” Sollima said. “I didn’t want audiences to watch ‘that famous actor’ playing the given character, I wanted audiences to look at and engage with the real characters, not with the celebrities playing them.”
Every single element composing “Gomorrah” is carefully researched and realized, yet the artistry never takes center stage; it is the punch of reality the spectator feels in its guts, not the complacency of mastery.
If the public opinion’s concern was that the TV series might glamorize organized crime, “Gomorrah” not only failed such presumption but did so with a dose of intellectual honesty that is hard to come by anywhere, let alone on Italian television. Avoiding any moralistic teaching, the series shakes our certainties, prejudices and assumptions by simply yet magisterially showing the ugly face of truth.
In “Gomorrah,” there is none of the iconic fetishization of crime audiences have come to associate with the onscreen depiction of the mob. As Sollima pointed out, “There are no heroes in this TV series. Only victims.”