Italian crime drama Gomorrah stands comparisons to The Sopranos

One of the highlights of television’s transformation over the last decade has been watching how the successful shows and popular genres from American and Britain have been absorbed by ambitious European creators and volleyed back as distinct new series. There have been a succession of signature titles from Europe, including the implacable horror of Les Revenants (France), the kaleidoscopic Weimar Republic thriller Babylon Berlin (Germany), and the knotty political crucible Borgen (Denmark).

You can now add Italy’s entry to the list with SBS on Demand securing the organised-crime drama Gomorrah. With the first three seasons available to stream, this is an immersive experience that draws comparison to heralded American gangland hits such as The Wire and The Sopranos even as it puts an anthropological framework peculiar to the city of Naples on its grim plotting and bloody denunciations.

How much veracity does this saga bear? Since 2006, when his non-fiction book Gomorrah was published, journalist and screenwriter Roberto Saviano has been living under police protection due to credible death threats from the Camorra, the crime syndicate he documented whose tentacles spread throughout Southern Italy and beyond.

Marco D’Amore plays mid-level gangster Chiro in Gomorrah.Credit:SBS

That hasn’t stopped Saviano adapting Gomorrah to the screen. He contributed to the script of Matteo Garrone’s masterful 2008 film of the same name, and now he’s one of the creators of this separate series, which begins in 2014 with a pair of mid-level gangsters on their way to torch the apartment of a rival’s mother while he’s inside enjoying dinner. Their rank is telling – Ciro (Marco D’Amore) and Attilio (Antonio Milo) are off the streets, where the lucrative drug trade provides cash, but they still follow orders that they dare not question.

There’s little underworld glamour to be had. The foot soldiers and their families live in crowded public housing tower apartments, while the wealth of their don, Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino) and his commanding wife Immacolata (Maria Pia Calzone) is gaudy but transitory. Everything feels like it could be swept away, which makes for rash decisions about how to maintain what they have and fearful escalation when something goes wrong. The folds of cash and belligerent public presence don’t bring satisfaction, just a steady drip of apprehension.

There are overly familiar elements to the story. Pietro’s son Gennaro (Salvatore Esposito, currently starring in the new season of Fargo) is the kind of ambitious but sheltered criminal scion you’ve seen many times over, but the evolutionary grind of Gomorrah – where you either act in risk or perish – means that he moves beyond that initial outline. The passing of power from one generation to the next is one of many fraught junctures the series explores.

Meat and greet: Salvatore Esposito (left) in Italian crime series Gomorrah.Credit:SBS

Ciro’s dissatisfaction with illicit middle management also drives the narrative: “I’ll get big wreaths of flowers for everybody,” Pietro dismissively promises him after a bloody encounter results in losses. But his ambition never becomes mythic. The show never lets the viewer, or Ciro, imagine that he can rise to a place where he’s untouchable. Instead it’s a trade-off: more power and wealth simply means you’re a target for the next contender.

With its tight direction and handheld camera intimacy Gomorrah doesn’t allow for any illusions about the underworld life of its main characters. Perhaps that’s why the Camorra targeted Roberto Saviano. The orderly corruption and cunning double-crosses he depicts are bleak and not aspirational. But that demystification doesn’t stop it from being gripping viewing.

Gomorrah (seasons 1-3) is on SBS on Demand.

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