Gomorrah Never Dies
…But just about everyone in it does.
You probably already know the backstory to ‘Gomorrah’, the fictional TV adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s 2006 real-life exposé of the Camorra, the Neapolitan crime syndicate, and how the writer has to live with bodyguards these days. It was turned into a hit gangster series and became the first Italian production to break in America. Why is the show that was once described as making ‘The Godfather’ look like Gilbert & Sullivan still so unmissable?
There’s something hypnotic about ‘Gomorrah’ from the moody Mokadelic score to the desolate, grimy Neapolitan locations that hooks you. Season 1 partly took its main story from a real-life gang war known as La faida di Scampia in 2004. Series 2, 3 and 4 riff on the characters, and in every episode you know the following things will happen;
It’ll open on a desolate, sulphurous-looking stretch of motorway or at a crumbling concrete estate, a dockside, a bleak backstreet or abandoned factory.
People will be loading and unloading boxes and packets, or welding them inside, I don’t know, carousel horses or something. These are drugs or as they’re also known, the McGuffin. They get sold to the street rats of Naples, and in one episode they’re shipped to London, about which I’m all, Oi mate, do you mind, that’s my manor. I’ve been to the rough bits of Naples. When you see a sign saying ‘Escalator Out Of Action’ they mean this;
The series feels like the city, horribly gritty and serious and real. No-one in the history of the show has ever, ever smiled once about anything.
Nor, at the beginning of every episode, will you have the faintest idea what’s going on. All the gangsters have beards and severe ‘high & tight’ haircuts that make them look identical. Sometimes they leave a little hair island with a topknot, like a silly hat. They argue a lot over who gets which drug pitch, like market traders flogging cauliflowers.
The women fall into two archetypes. Skinny dark-eyed angry-looking girl in leather bomber jacket trying to get out of working in laundry and into big-time drug dealing. And older makeup-caked broad in Donatella Versace. Into this latter camp fell the most fascinating character from Season 1, the hardboiled prison widow Lady Imma – needless to say (spoiler alert) she was gunned down for being too classy. Actually, there are no spoiler alerts for this series if you just assume that everyone will eventually be gunned down. Like we get showers of rain, they get hails of bullets.
In every episode Ciro (the bald vulpine one) smokes himself to death. He stares gloomily from balconies like a vulture looking for carrion, blowing smoke down his nose and endlessly lighting fags in dark corridors. He must be on 80 a day, minimum. If you had a drinking game based on him lighting up, you’d be pissed halfway through the show. He can’t have more than 30 dialogue lines over four series. He doesn’t need to talk because he has the stare of death. His stare can boil a kettle or kill a small dog.
Gennaro (the fat one) has a truly unique walk, as if he’s wearing a Victorian corset. He moves like someone trying to walk a door across a room, and looks like a cross between Stretch Armstrong and an ape. He’s so menacing that in every episode he only has to do one thing as an actor; he turns slowly from a window and walks up to whomever has entered the room. Then he stops and stares hard at them.
Then he takes a single pace further forward.
He stares some more. Finally he says something cryptic about blood and family, either pointing to his eye or his chest. That’s it. Either still waters run deep or he’s really thick. He spends an awful lot of time clutching the backs of his friends’ heads to emphasise his points. And he spends a lot of time staring at Ciro.
Thing is, we’re invested in Ciro and Gennaro. We’ve watched them growing up in buildings that look like prison blocks. We’ve seen all their photo album moments; first parent being mown down, first sibling being shot in the head, first blood revenge oath. Such memories.
There’s no sex to speak of beyond the odd furtive shag (usually over a table) and not much for the women to do. Lady Chanel is always playing cards in the back of a factory with three chain-smoking old bags. Frankly she could have done this working in a laundrette without the hassle of being a drug kingpin. Later she’s put in charge of a coffin makers and gets to pick out her own casket (the shonkiest one, natch). Presumably it’s one of the few industries in Naples that’s doing well.
Being a mafia drug lord appears about as interesting as unloading pallets in a B&Q warehouse. There’s an endless supply of young males in leather jackets whose job is to unlock gates or open security doors. They hang around in miserable flats while their bosses stare at each other, then go off on motorbikes. Their faces are always in shadow because the whole of Naples is chronically underlit.
You ask yourself, why do they do it, why do they live like this? The rich ones inhabit vulgar neon and leopardskin chambers which are inside slum buildings because they can’t leave their turf. The poor ones have all the usual troubles of life, plus the risk of getting shot or chopped up into stock-cube sized pieces and fed into smelting cauldrons.
Rest assured; every week someone will die before you’ve even begun to remember which side they’re on. The police are non-existent. The streets are always empty (I bet everyone dreads the call sheets; ‘Start time 4:00am’). It feels simultaneously real and surreal. No-one ever thinks, ‘Maybe I’ll get a job in an office’. But the only unrealistic element I can spot is the lack of the church’s involvement in all of this. You can’t cross a street in Naples without bumping into six lads carrying a Virgin Mary.
‘Gomorrah’ is repetitive, doom-laden and relentless. I’ll be there until the (no doubt grim) end.