‘Gomorrah’ Review: Engrossing Drama Finds New Ways Into the Mob

Sundance TV brings acclaimed Italian series Stateside

Matteo Garrone
Matteo Garrone

Rather than glamorizing or moralizing on its gangster milieu, “Gomorrah” chooses a chilling third option, stoically presenting it as an inescapable reality that ensnares everyone in its path. Based on the acclaimed nonfiction book that inspired 2008’s award-winning film of the same name, this engrossingly entertaining Italian series offers taut, pitiless storytelling that lends its 12-episode first season the brutal efficiency of a mob hitman.

Originally airing on Italian television in 2014 — with a second season debuting earlier this year — “Gomorrah” comes to Sundance TV, whose viewers don’t need to be familiar with Roberto Saviano’s book (or the work of director Matteo Garrone (pictured), whose big-screen adaptation, which earned the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival) to be swept up in the deft intrigue.

As the show begins, the taciturn, imposing Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino) rules his kingdom as one of the central power players in Naples’ criminal underworld. With his loving wife Lady Imma (Maria Pia Calzone) by his side, Pietro hopes to groom his lazy, spoiled adult son Genny (Salvatore Esposito) into becoming his heir, recruiting loyal lieutenant Ciro (Marco D’Amore) to show him the ropes. But once Pietro is arrested and sent to prison, his clan’s empire begins to show signs of collapse, both from external enemies and from personality clashes within the organization.

Presented with English subtitles, which allow the viewer to more fully savor the show’s flinty dialogue and precise plot machinations, the first season does a remarkable job of maintaining a dispassionate perspective. Our loyalties continually shift as different characters’ fortunes rise and fall, and the series creators (including Saviano and artistic director Stefano Sollima) meticulously avoid any temptation to comment on the bloody world they’re depicting.

That’s not to say that “Gomorrah” is amoral, for the series is quite perceptive about how, in the poor communities where the show takes place, mobsters can thrive and even individuals who would appear to be far removed from the lifestyle are trapped by its influence — whether it be a mayoral candidate or a kid working at the local motorcycle shop.

If the reach of the criminal underworld’s long arms provides “Gomorrah” with much of its bleak fascination – the corruption and destruction spreading over the landscape and across generations – that’s but one absorbing component in this drama. From one episode to the next, it’s always a bit of a surprise which character will become the story’s central figure, the writers seemingly able to make any of its dramatic players utterly gripping. (One episode, for instance, unexpectedly plays like a financial thriller starring a supporting character whose dilemma proves critical to the overall series arc.)

As a result, no matter how compelling “Gomorrah’s” power plays, betrayals and unlikely alliances are, at heart the series is about the mafia as a way of life — how it’s its own economy and ecosystem with tightly defined hierarchies, social customs and institutional memory. Once Genny begins to assert his birthright in his father’s clan, he learns how even the smallest action has unforeseen consequences, the fragility of alliances threatened by his every move. Although mixing elements of the crime drama, action-thriller and family melodrama, “Gomorrah” slowly develops into an elaborate chess match between its principals, which include the emergence of a rival crime boss (Marco Palvetti) who sees an opportunity to cripple Pietro’s reign — especially when someone closest to the Don switches sides.

With most of the cast unfamiliar to American viewers, the ensemble can more easily melt into these roles without the baggage of our previous associations. Cerlino (who appeared in the “Gomorrah” film and on the NBC series “Hannibal”) brings effortless cunning and menace as Pietro, with even the prospect of being incarcerated doing nothing to shake his steely calm. Calzone pushes to ensure that her character transcends potential Lady Macbeth clichés as the powerful woman behind the throne, and likewise Esposito has some surprises in store for his seemingly predictable bratty, worthless scion. But best of all is D’Amore, whose cold, calculating Ciro will go through an odyssey of conflicted emotions as his fate hangs in the balance once he gets drawn into a knotty conflict with the Don’s family.

To be sure, a history of excellent films (“The Godfather,” “Goodfellas”) and television series (“The Sopranos”) have made it nearly impossible to say something new about the luridly mesmerizing inner workings of the mafia. Perhaps that’s why “Gomorrah” doesn’t seem very entranced by its world. For these characters, the mob is as elemental and unavoidable as oxygen or food — or death, whose cruel finality, incidentally, visits these people with grisly regularity. The characters can’t shake their environment — and once “Gomorrah” puts its hooks into you, you’ll feel the same way.