‘Gomorrah’: Italy’s Hit Crime Saga Arrives in America

·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
image

An Italian-made crime-family saga that was a big sensation in its homeland, Gomorrah (based on the 2014 film) begins its American run on SundanceTV on Wednesday night. It tells the story of a Naples-based organized-crime syndicate with a bloody pulp effectiveness that lapses regularly into soap opera about the troubled clan at the center of the tale.

That family is the Savastanos, led by Don Pietro (Fortunado Cerlino), who has built a mighty drug empire and is very powerful and very feared. But, early on in the proceedings, Don Pietro is arrested and jailed, setting up an internecine struggle between his son, Genny (Salvatore Esposito), Don Pietro’s wife, Donna Imma (Maria Pia Calzone), and Don Pietro’s most trusted lieutenant, Ciro (Marco D’Amore).

If you place Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies in the center of the Italian-mob genre, there have been hundreds of TV shows, films, and books about this subject before and after Coppola’s magisterial efforts. How does Gomorrah distinguish itself? Mostly by keeping its tension at a low boil, like simmering garlic in oil without burning it. There are plenty of scenes of violent retribution and cruel displays of power — it’s how a criminal enterprise maintains the upper hand, right? — but Gomorrah is at its finest when it’s exploring the petty grudges and festering resentments that its characters on all levels — from highly positioned gangsters to low-level bag-men — nurture with grim unhappiness.

The acting — particularly by Cerlino as Don Pietro and Calzone as his grasping wife — is often excellent. What I find lacking in Gomorrah is much in the way of sharp-wittedness or a knowingness about what has preceded it in gangster-drama history. Some scenes are moving and corny simultaneously: When Don Pietro tests the worthiness of his son to take over the family business, Genny comes back from an assigned hit proclaiming fatuously, “Killing is f—ing easy!” His father, a tough, shrewd, hardened man, melts: “Now I can die,” he says. (That’s no spoiler, by the way: he doesn’t die in what is only the second episode.)

This production may have been immensely popular overseas — the New York Times has claimed that it had “six times as many viewers in Italy as Game of Thrones.” But I wouldn’t overrate the show based on this: It could be that Italians don’t dig dragons as much as Americans do. It is also more likely that we have created superior work, and got there first. We’ve seen immature gangland children like Genny before (The Sopranos is an obvious example), and the show’s numerous scenes of betrayals, of dishonor among thieves, will seem to American eyes that have watched everything from Scarface (both versions) to The Wire, rather too familiar. (There’s a reason SundanceTV is preceding the premiere with a showing of Scorsese’s Goodfellas.)

Gomorrah is based on a best-selling book by Roberto Saviano, which also inspired a prize-winning feature film. On Italian television, a second, equally popular season of Gomorrah has aired. Clearly there is meat on these bones that people enjoy picking at. Your appetite for it, however, may vary.

Gomorrah airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. on SundanceTV.