The TV series Gomorra is simply perfect. It is well written, well shot and well acted. With its pithy style and occasional irony it plunges the viewer into the criminal microcosm of a city where different ethnicities, nationalities and languages mix. What Gomorra does best is to create a sense of place without indulging in ultra-realism or falling for a cliché portrait. The title comes from Roberto Saviano’s book Gomorra, a pun of biblical Gomorrah and Camorra (the Neapolitan ‘mafia’), which was adapted for the screen beautifully by Matteo Garrone (Gomorra, 2008). The film was harsh and slightly detached. The TV series adds a little empathy, but not sympathy. After all, in the best tradition of Italian westerns, there are no goodies and baddies. They are all bad, very bad.
Gomorra’s Naples is everything but Italian. The language and the music are Neapolitan, not Italian (yes, Italians watch it with subtitles), there are no tourists or pretty views. The landscape underlines the moral decay of the events with no sentimentality. No postcard pictures, but not even the lyricism of harsh reality. The local language and music is balanced with the different ethnicities of migrants and criminal gangs giving us a picture of a globalised Naples. In this way Gomorra avoids a static portrayal of culture and identity. The choice of leaving Italy out of the picture is a very interesting and convincing one. There’s a moment when the clan is in dispute with Nigerians over how much the Nigerians can keep of the profit from the sale of drugs. The local boss Don Pietro (Fortunato Cerlino) dismisses them (in non-politically correct language) as chimps. Some in the clan believe the Nigerian claim is unjustified because they are foreigners. However, Don Pietro goes beyond this and affirms his authority by forging relationships and finding agreement.
It is primarily a story of power as a complex matrix of relationships. This is very rare in films and TV and, sadly, sometimes even in sociology! Power is too often understood as control and force, as an uneven relationship. Unlike in The Wire, where the gangs are organised hierarchically as a military force, in Gomorra power relies on an intricate web of relationships of loyalty and trust. It is not enough for the foot soldiers to go to prison, kill and die for the boss, they need to secure the right relationships. That’s why power is about persuasion. Persuasion is dependent on the character’s personality, intelligence and relationships with other characters. Ciro’s (Marco D’Amore) friendship with Genny (Salvio Esposito), the son of the boss allows him a privileged position, but it is through his shrewd maneuvring that he gains clout. Don Pietro Savastano shows he has power outside and inside the prison because he is a recognised authority, but also because he doesn’t shy away from useful partnerships. Genny, who starts as a spoilt and weak son, gains power by gaining independence from his parents and having influence over a group within the clan. Genny’s power rests on his relationships with the younger generation. This brings about a generational war, which Imma (Maria Pia Calzone), Genny’s mother, tries to resolve the conflict through Genny by appealing to clan loyalty.
Donna Imma carves a place for herself from which she emerges as the head the family. Yet, she comes to the fore to take the reins of the family out of loyalty for her husband. She wields power through persuasion and shrewdness. She does not act ‘like a man’ to be taken seriously nor does she rely on men as advisers. Her authority comes from her effectiveness. Gomorra is dominated by men, yet the women are hardly submissive. Even Genny’s girlfriend, who is seduced by his position and wealth, demands Genny stand up for himself. Genny, both weak and strong, is played with great subtlety by Salvio Esposito. His masculinity follows a traditional pattern, yet it is in response to his environment and ‘political’ situation rather than self-identity, which would reflect a more individualistic culture. In American cinema, the individual is at the centre and social characteristics, such as gender and socio-economic status, are often used to identify the person. In contrast, Gomorra sets firmly its characters in their social and personal relationships. Georg Simmel would be proud!