One of the best sequences and lines in movie history comes from Goodfellas. Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, narrates over the death sequence of his friend Tommy DeVito, who, thinking he’s going to get made, is murdered in revenge for killing Billy Batts, a made man. Hill describes it as ‘real greaseball shit’ and that it was ‘among the Italians’. In this context, it’s a euphemism for resolving disputes between Mafiosi of pure Sicilian blood.
Such acts of exclusivity became an effective means for the Italian American mafia to protect its purity and traditions. Contrast this with Gomorra, the TV series, and these rituals and mores appear meagre by comparison. Why? The Camorra’s rules extend over entire sections of society, not just its own members. It survives and thrives by any means necessary and whatever it costs others, and that’s what the two screen adaptations of Gomorra have emphasized so emphatically.
Where Gomorra La Serie differs from the film is by focusing on portraying a fictitious, but plausible, character driven narrative and adopting a more intricate plot within its aesthetic. The authenticity of the subject is vindicated by the book, which both the movie and TV series is adapted from, released in 2006, as it pissed off the real Camorra. So much so that the author, Roberto Saviano, had to be escorted by body guards for a period. You can understand the Camorra’s dissatisfaction, his depiction of the grotesque and cynical means with which they seize and control their territories, and how their mendacious presence has exacerbated the decay of the slums (their turf, as it were) into Dickensian realms of poverty and addiction was uncompromisingly brave, traits they seldom encounter in opposition. Gomorra’s visual interpretation is itself a statement, and can be considered even more scathing than the novel. Its representation of the Camorra’s nasty and barbaric acts, particularly the killings, the sheer number of them and the brazen disposability of people, aka the ‘real greaseball shit’, leaves little to the imagination and therefore eviscerates any potential continuation of glib cultural misconceptions of Camorra activity.
All the viewer is left with is a bleak cascade of cynicism, greed, betrayal and death. In this sense ‘Gomorra’ shares traits with The Wire, also mirroring its episodic approach that documents the negative effects of organised crime on each character in their particular echelon. I’ve only watched the first six episodes of season one, but so far Gomorra has purposely eschewed, probably due to budget, the expansive and overt sociological scope or cultural introspection of The Wire’s now complete opus. It certainly isn’t The Sopranos, which documented the changes in American and particularly Italian American culture throughout the noughties. By using comedic interludes and caricatures, The Sopranos became a sumptuous tragi-comedy, which is also a comfier means of parodying the romanticised idea of mafia crime, developed by generations lionising the exploits of Al Capone and John Gotti, and turning the Godfather trilogy and Martin Scorsese’s movies into vapid cultural clichés.
However, Gomorra’s existence has plenty to thank for our obsession with mafia crime. Here it’s offering an antidote to this through a damming political, cultural and moral commentary using the traditional conduit of characterisation. In doing so it doesn’t piously chide the viewer as a documentary often can. Gomorra knows its viewers are adults. We already understand that until drugs are decriminalised organised crime syndicates of this ilk will benefit. Even so the grime and degradation of the Neapolitan slums smack you in the face like a still alive Salmon being swung by Mike Tyson circa 1987.
The topography and scars of the slums reveal a legion of untold horror stories; mini shrines made of candles, pictures of the deceased and Virgin Mary statues are abundant on landings, there are bullet holes galore, everything is filthy, the damp rises, concrete crumbles, hypodermic needles, rubbish and litter are abundant, swimming pools are abandoned, and grass embankments are over grown. You can almost smell the five day old dried piss mixed with the rising stench of blocked sewage pipes fizzing in the midday sun. There must be some nice places in Naples, but there isn’t any where the Camorra operates. Even the Savatasano mansion is a garishly nuevo-riche over-compensation to renounce their operational philistinism.
Watching how the Savatasano family, and their ambitious henchman Ciro, operate and manipulate the Camorra’s savage matrix best they can, is where this show shines. To date, as I’m one of uninitiated, all of main characters retain an arcane quality. This is aided by a realistic device, omerta – a code of silence relating to Camorra activities, giving them near impunity to do as they please. There’s a related sub-plot that’s been running in the background throughout season one, which will no doubt be part of the first season’s climax, there’s a rat among the clan’s higher ups who’s negotiating their terms with the police.
You suspect this may be Ciro, a capable, loyal captain of Savastanos, and appointed consigliere and mentor for the Savastano heir Genny, who is the point man for much of their dirtiest and most dangerous work. The increasing distance and lack of trust he receives from the Savastano’s makes him start to question the wisdom of their leadership and his allegiance to them. But, like Don Pietro and Lady Imma Savastano, Ciro is a real heartless piece of shit. He looks people in the eye intensely and at close range, almost comically so, no doubt as a means of engendering trust and or a way of deciphering if someone is lying.
I found myself having a tinge of sympathy for the Salvastano heir Gennaro ‘Genny’. Genny is the self-entitled, spoiled, brattish, childish moderately clichéd fat bastard twatcunt who you suspect will have to change his hedonistic ways, or his pushy parents will change it in an effort to retain their empire and legacy. So far Genny is clearly ill-equipped for the life of a Camorra leader, finding himself unwillingly trapped into responsibilities and tasks by duty to the family name. The insertion of Genny high within the Camorra organisation presents a truism, there’s complete futility in placing significant faith in the idea of finding meaning through succession and loyalty in an illegal industry, when opportunity and aspiration often conflate to work against its success.
Speaking of success, Don Pietro Savastano clearly is and has been in situ for a while, though he doesn’t look remotely close to how I’d imagine the head of a Camorra clan leader would. He has no visible scars, wears glasses, and dresses like a hedge fund manager who’s on his day off. The crack in this benign façade is the employment of angry bird eyebrows that emboldens his Sam the Eagle frown, which when married with his banker phenotype conveys a ‘I’m sick of having to explain why this is a good idea to my utterly stupid superiors’ irritation. He’s as self-righteously assured as Tony Blair circa 2002 and just as motivated by self-interest and self-preservation.
A safe drinking game would involve counting the number of times Don Pietro genuinely laughs or looks remotely happy. For recovering alcoholics it’s as guaranteed as route to sobriety as you’d find. All jokes aside, there’s no humour to be found in Gomorra, not even the dark variety. While the show is clearly not asking us to emphasize with Don Pietro or anyone else, his tired disposition tells us how much pressure the head of the clan is placed under, and how joyless an existence he lives.
So it’s no surprise that Don Pietro’s first instinct is to scorch the earth of all possible competitors. He pouts when he doesn’t get his way, which is only in front of his wife ‘Lady Imma’ who’s as close to his equal as is possible. Everyone else falls in line, and they’re fine with this, and you are too, because you’re as terrified of what he might do to any of the other characters as they are of him.
Because he constantly lives under the threat of assassination or imprisonment, Don Pietro’s wife, Lady Imma, represents the family’s only realistic chance of maintaining operational control in the succession model. Even in a world dominated by chauvinism, the threat of death and intimidation, she proves to be just as ruthless, scheming and manipulative as Don Pietro, and manages to wield authority with the same success. We can glean from this that the Savastano family have remained in charge because they’re cleverer than their competitors, and that mass loyalty is adhered to in a Camorra syndicate as long as its leadership is perceived to be stable.
Gomorra goes one step further than criticism of the Camorra and the societal indifferences that allows them to flourish. It places you vis-à-vis with humanity’s barbarism, that it’s still inherent and quite easy to emancipate when living in a cyclical mincer of fear, despair and violence. Gomorra’s brand of grimly, realistic almost dystopian ‘greaseball shit’ ups the ante and leaves you nowhere to look but right at it, transfixed with intrigue at this alien way of life.