Title: The Media That I Am: Gomorra Date: 2017-12-07 Modified: 2017-12-07 Category: Blog Slug: the-media-that-i-am-gomorra Tags: the-media-that-i-am, review, tv-show Summary: A review of a TV show that starts well and ends badly
So, I haven't blogged in a while, because most of the technical stuff I've been doing has consisted of some combination of:
Thus, for a change, I'm going to do something that people in my life have been telling me to do for years and years: start reviewing the (frankly absurd) amount of media I consume. I'm going to start with something fairly recent: the TV show Gomorra, now in its third season. As I'll probably do more of these, I'm starting (yet another) series of posts on my blog, which I have decided to name 'The Media That I Am'. I chose this name because, in a way, this media is now part of me, influencing my thoughts and perceptions. And because I am an uninspired dolt sometimes (like today). So, without further ado...
Naturally, reviews may involve spoilers, no matter how much we try to avoid it. With this in mind, I will try as hard as possible to avoid having spoilers for anyone who was planning to watch (or read, or listen to) whatever I'm reviewing. However, some minor spoilers might happen all the same - you've been warned.
Gomorra is an Italian TV series about a crime family in contemporary Naples. It's based on the writing of Roberto Saviano about the Camorra and 'Ndrangheta crime syndicates; you know it's authentic when the groups you write about want to have you killed for revealing their secrets. Having read Roberto's work, I can attest that the writing is of top quality, as fascinating as it is horrifying, and deeply and cuttingly personal. I haven't gotten feelings like the ones I got from reading Roberto's book since reading The Gulag Archipelago, and the reason that piece of writing hit me right in the heart was that it described (horrifying and absolutely unimaginable) horrors that were inflicted on my own family. Even with the benefit of distance, I still felt the pain that Roberto wanted to convey; when I found out that Gomorra was made with Roberto in a central creative role, I was expecting something amazing, awash with atmosphere, story and authenticity.
In particular, the story is about the Savastano crime family, and centers around one of their middle-tier members named Ciro Di Marzio, his actions and the fortunes of the Savastanos around these actions. While Ciro plays a leading role, the stories of several other characters are woven around his: Don Pietro Savastano, the 'godfather' of the Savastano clan; Donna Imma, Don Pietro's ambitious wife; Genarro (or 'Genny') Savastano, his soft and somewhat-incompetent son; and Salvatore Conte, a rival leader to the Savastanos. Most of the action takes place in Naples, with some of the story being told in Spain and Rome (on-screen) and Honduras (off-screen). Various other characters are woven in and around these main actors, but the story is, above all, about Ciro and his ability to survive, from which his nickname 'The Immortal' derives.
I had high hopes coming into this show, and in quite a few respects, it did not disappoint:
This is something of an odd thing to praise first, but I was extremely impressed with the cinematographic work of this show. Some say that good cinematography is invisible, but that's a Hollywoodism; but without doubt, I will agree that bad cinematography sticks out like a sore thumb. Gomorra hits the nail 100% on the head with its cinematographic technique, something it has in common with Italian cinema, and showing its more sophisticated European colours front-and-centre. In particular, two things stuck out at me:
The former is somewhat self-explanatory, but I can find no adjective to describe it other than gorgeous. The colours are rich and well-fitted; despite its dark and gritty subject matter, wherein Hollywood and the American approach to TV would be tempted to paint everything in shades of grey or black, colour is used judiciously throughout, making every scene feel much more real. The contrasts of colour used in the ostentatious and frankly palatial residences of the leaders of the Savastano clan as compared to the neighbourhoods in which much of the action takes place is made clearer and more apparent with this colour use. Additionally, when 'grim and gritty' grey-toned scenes are used (and it happens fairly quickly), they are so much more prominent and effective for it. Essentially, the cinematographer deserves endless praise for their decisions here, but ultimately, I suspect it's more to do with their heritage in the Italian cinematic tradition than any deliberate choice.
The latter requires more explanation. By 'juxtaposition cuts' I refer to constructions where two substantially different scenes are inter-cut with each other, typically unified by a musical number which runs uninterrupted throughout. A great example of this can be found in Besson's The Fifth Element, specifically during the Diva Laguna's musical number (which is juxtaposed with Leeloo fighting the Mangalores). This is hard to do well - it can easily become an incoherent mess if the cuts are made in an ad-hoc manner, and a sense of synchronization between the two scenes being inter-cut is needed, which must be driven by the music chosen to unify them. Gomorra is probably the first time in recent memory that I recall such a technique being used for television; it happens once, and the scenes chosen could not be more contrasting if they tried (impressing a woman and a prison suicide). Combined with the colour pallete choices for both (described above) as well as the frankly excellent scoring of the season (which I will elaborate on further later on), this scene is probably the height of the season for me.
Generally, calling out cinematography like this indicates that it is either amazing or terrible. I am happy to say that in this case, it is not merely amazing, but first in its class, at least based on my own experience. I would go as far as saying that this should be used as a reference point for good cinematographical skills; it really is that good.
The cinematic tradition is littered with cases where good scoring took a merely average scene to amazing heights, or made a good scene brilliant. Scoring is a delicate matter, requiring appropriate balance of emotion, energy and authenticity relative the material portrayed. Several TV series have received considerable praise for their unique and interesting scoring: The Sopranos would probably be the first example in television that comes to my mind, but there are definitely plenty of others. Gomorra in my opinion succeeds remarkably with its soundtrack, with two highlights in particular, which I simply cannot stop listening to.
This is at least in part because of Italy's amazing ability to bring quality to even the trashiest pop in existence; however, Mokadelic's score is well-selected and authentic, featuring a mixture including Italian street rap. The two songs in question, however, are contributed by two Neapolitan artists: Ancora Noi by Alessio, and E' Chiammalo by Anthony. I can't stop listening to these songs. However, it's not just the song selection that is excellent - their placement is also extremely strong. Ancora Noi is used in the juxtaposition scene described above, which makes the suicide all the more impactive, while E' Chiammalo is used in an abrupt context switch (which involves someone suddenly dying); both of these make those scenes far stronger than they would have been otherwise, and are authentic and of high quality. However, these aren't the only cases where musical choices have helped a scene develop characters or produce an effect: a scene illustrating the generation gap between Ciro and another character makes excellent use of a song to illustrate this, for example.
While I can't say every song in the soundtrack was something I enjoyed, I can say with confidence that they were chosen well, and work with every scene they're placed in. This is not a small achievement, and again speaks highly of the work of Mokadelic.
Undoubtedly, Ciro is an anti-hero: our initial encounter with him involves committing a crime that could have gotten innocent people killed. However, we can still cheer for anti-heroes, provided that:
In this regard, at least at first, Ciro hits every one of those points. Despite our first introduction to his character showing us, in no uncertain terms, that he is not a good person, we also see his human side as part of that. This is made even stronger in the first episode by several events which allow us to see his human and honourable side, as well as showing the lack of said from those who command (and oppose) him. This gives us a strong reason to cheer for Ciro right from the beginning, helped in no small part by the portrayal of the character delivered by Marco D'Amore. Even Ciro's appearance is well-tuned to have this effect. Even though he is a tough criminal type (as evidenced by his shaved head and violent acts without the slightest hesitation), he is portrayed as soft, almost feminine in his presentation, and looks incredibly stylish throughout. While those things are minor, and arguably reflect our societal biases towards 'pretty = good' reasoning, the fact that the writers and designers of the show are aware of this and choose to kick us in that particular conditioning shows a good understanding of character design.
Ciro is not the only character where this effect is visible. Other characters are clearly drawn as 'good' or 'bad' people, again by frequently playing on our conditionings. Don Pietro is shown as ruthlessly efficient, but utterly uncaring, both in his interactions with his family and with his underlings, even those he seems to be fond of (like Ciro). There is a great scene illustrating all of these, where Don Pietro ends up punishing Ciro in an incredibly demeaning manner for an action that Ciro was arguably forced to take, and did out of a mixture of respect and kindness, and Ciro accepting the punishment dutifully despite having a low opinion of the Don. Another scene that demonstrates this is Don Pietro acting on a rumour about a mole in his organization against an innocent, long-term underling, and later being shown to be wrong. All the major characters have this: Lady Imma, Genny, and even Salvatore Conte to a lesser degree. The quality of writing comes through really well here, and makes us clearly know who to cheer for.
While this isn't always done in the best of ways (which I will discuss later), and this completely falling over in the second half (which I will definitely discuss later), at first, this was done so well that I couldn't stop watching.
Obviously, I have never lived in Naples, never interacted with the criminal underworld, and so forth, but at least from the point of view of perception of authenticity, Gomorra does a great job. From the location choices, to the spoken Neapolitan of the characters, to just about everything else, I found myself believing everything was legitimate. I suspect that Saviano may have something to do with all of this (as he actually lived all these things), but whatever the reason, I couldn't avoid mentioning this. While I think some of the actors involved (especially Marco D'Amore's Ciro and Marco Palvetti's Conte) are far too pretty to portray the characters they're meant to, otherwise, I found the casting choices to fit well.
Additionally, Gomorra does not shy away from the violence of the Neapolitan crime syndicates, or who it's inflicted on, showing scenes like the torture of a 15-year-old girl who knows nothing of what's being asked from her. This is shocking in its directness, and unlike Game of Thrones, for example, is in no way dressed up or given an 'escape clause'. It reminds me of some of the descriptions of the violence in Saviano's books, which again suggests that he had a lot to do with the way they were written. Some of the violence is made even more striking using juxtaposition (for example, with 'E Chiammalo), which I found to be Tarantino-esque, despite the lack of his signature aesthetization. This gives us a whole different quality to the way it's done by Tarantino, for example, which really got to me personally. Additionally, the show seems to have something about dog violence - two dogs die by shootings in the show, one of which we see being rescued after being injured. While not everyone is as much of an animal lover as I am, I have to say that the effect this had was quite fitting, if awful.
It is also interesting to see how the story of Gomorra portrays the effect on families, both those 'in' the crime world and on its periphery. There are more instances of this than I can count, and this is hardly a new idea: The Godfather is ultimately about the 'family' in 'crime family', and television's The Sopranos was so relatable not least of all because it portrays a familial situation which would be close to the experiences of many men of Tony Soprano's age, despite the glamour associated with higher ranks of organized crime. However, the approach taken by Gomorra is two-fold: the way it portrays the effects of the actions of the main characters on crime families is contrasted with the effects on non-crime families. Once again, there are too many examples to list here, but the fact that it discusses the effect on 'civillians' in a strongly direct manner (almost rubbing our faces in it) feels authentic and relatable in a way that 'familiarizing' does not. While The Sopranos and similar shows have done this, I find Gomorra's ability to do this to be at a much higher calibre.
There are also pleasant touches of Italianism (and Neapolitanism). The manner of greeting, the 'facial closeness' commonly exhibited, the endless coffee drinking, and many other small features, are definitely on-point. One of the first scenes of the series is Conte going for dinner with his mother, who promptly scolds him for smoking at the table; I don't want to stereotype, but that scene is so screamingly Italian I can hardly think of one moreso. There are also frequent and direct exhibitions of poverty: the biggest one for me was a 17-year-old man proposing to his 15-year-old girlfriend after committing a violent crime (and them having sex for what I assume was the first time by context). These two scenes, at least for me, were demonstrations of the authenticity that Gomorra tries to portray, with great success.
Authenticity is always a moving target where you try to tell a story with a message, but ultimately, it comes down to Robert Rosenstone's concepts of 'true' and 'false' invention. While I can't fully do justice to the full theory expounded on by Rosenstone's Visions of the Past: the Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History, the essential idea is that, when telling a story, we always have to fabricate or 'fill in' gaps to suit the story being told and the message being conveyed. Rosenstone argues that this 'inventing' takes two forms: 'true' invention, which is consistent with what we know and what happened, and 'false' invention, which is not. That Hollywood are masters of 'false' invention hardly needs stating: 'false' invention permeates Hollywood's every output like a foul odour, historical or not. Gomorra, on the other hand, invents 'truly', or at least gives the appearance of said. Whether this is due to a more European focus on accuracy, Saviano's expertise and input, or something else, this is refreshing and impactful, and in my opinion, deserving of praise.
Good acting can lift a bad show into mediocrity; bad acting instead slumps the best of shows into mediocrity. When you combine good acting with good writing, magic can happen: Gomorra certainly manages that. All the acting is at least decent, with much of it being extremely good. Particular highlights are Ciro's everything, Lady Imma's everything, Gennaro's transformation, and a minor but important role by a young man who fixes motorcycles but gets drawn into this world in a violent way. However, I struggle to think of any really bad acting in the show. This is rare - even shows I enjoy immensely, I can usually find at least one instance of terrible acting: seemingly, every Athlun Zala must have a Lacus Cline to ruin my day. However, Gomorra avoids this in my view. Maybe this is down to me being star-struck by the foreign languageness of it all, and that I might be more critical of English-speaking actors. This is hard to say, and I still believe that the acting is not bad in any place I can think of.
First, a confession: I don't understand people who have the patience for shows like Breaking Bad. Arguments of the form 'it gets really good in Season X', where X is greater than 1, simply don't work for me. Why would I bother grinding through multiple seasons of mediocrity just to get to the good parts? Instead, a show should capture my attention immediately, and practically force me to keep watching. Nowadays, I use the One-Episode Test before I even bother continuing. The test goes as so: after one episode, do I want to keep watching? If the answer is anything other than a resounding 'Hell yes', it's not worth it. Undoubtedly, this means I miss out on the *Breaking Bad*s of the world; however, life is far too short, and time is far too limited, to keep watching something mediocre that doesn't hold my attention in the hope that it might get better.
Ultimately, I see that as a failure not only of audience engagement, but of pacing, which is a basic skill that anyone writing for the screen (big or small) should have a firm grasp of before putting fingers to keys. I'm being a bit unfair to Breaking Bad here; pacing seems to be a lost art everywhere now. However, I am still pleasantly surprised when a show gets this right, and Gomorra does. It achieves this by making me care about Ciro as a character immediately, while surrounding his story with others, riffing on contrasts between him and the others, and giving me a reason to care. It's sad that something so basic needs to be called out as a good thing, but based on experiences as recent as last night, I really think it should be mentioned here. For those morbidly curious: Shut Eye, despite being Jeffrey Donovan's latest foray into TV, is not nearly as good as Burn Notice and is not worth your time; you won't care about the characters and neither did I. Oh, and anti-ziganist undertones are downright offensive in the modern era.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, Gomorra cripples itself thoroughly about halfway through its first season. There are other nitpicks I have as well, but this is an absolute death sentence.
Anti-heroes are not nice people; in fact, they are outright detestable in their actions, doing horrible things that we wouldn't expect from a 'heroic' protagonist in any story. However, anti-heroes are compelling and interesting, and get used a lot: whether it's Lucifer from Sandman, Frank Castle from The Punisher, or Tony Soprano from The Sopranos, you can have anti-heroes who are likeable, who we cheer for, who we feel for, or who are downright cool. However, as I mentioned previously, this is dependent on the following (restated for emphasis):
As mentioned previously, Ciro's character initially hits every single note. His actions, however horrible, are shown as justified because of his sense of honour and the mistreatment meted out to him, and I ended up wanting him to succeed and overcome his enemies despite this. However, in the middle of the season, this falls over completely, due to Ciro taking completely unnecessary actions which are just as bad as those by the supposed 'bad' guys. This didn't just happen once or twice: it got repeatedly hammered into the viewer in the most direct way imaginable. It didn't convince me that Ciro was a tough-acting badass; instead, it made me wonder why I should be cheering for him at all. If he's portrayed as being exactly as bad as those he opposes, the only reason I had for wanting to support him evaporates.
It took me a while to see this, which initially manifested itself as disengagement from the show and its story. However, when I thought about it some more, I realized that the reason I stopped caring was because the main character no longer elicited any support or sympathy from me. Back when he was an honourable monster dealing with worse monsters, I could support his actions, even if they were awful on the face of it; once you show me that he's just a plain-out monster, why do I even care anymore? This is a torpedoing of not only Ciro's character, but in my opinion, the entire show and everything it had built up.
To the credit of the authors, this was likely intentional, designed to send the message that everyone in that world was as bad as each other. Now, that's a message, and arguably it's a message media have been trying to send us since history began. However, the execution of it here is poor at best, and it is achieved by ruining the main reason I was watching to begin with. If they wanted to go for a 'everyone in this underworld is a monster' story, they could have done so, but you need to give us someone to connect with, unless your entire audience is expected to consist of sociopaths (or psychopaths, I guess). Gomorra confuses this issue even further because it usually shows people in authority as (at best) complicit in all this, or in some cases, even worse than the criminals by painting them as petty tyrants or something similar. This simultaneously casts doubt on, but also reinforces, my theory that the intended message was that there is nobody we can cheer for, and that everyone in this world is a monster. This was certainly the point of Saviano's works; but in a medium such as this, the construction used was wrong. Showing Ciro's monstrosity for 'shock value' after building up our sympathy towards him might be effective, but it's at the cost of making your viewers wonder why they're even there after that point. This seems counter to the medium, counter to the way the story was being told up to that point, and generally a strange decision.
This particular issue was fatal for me. In fact (as I note later), I basically dropped the show over this, and I don't believe I'm alone in this. At best, this was a clumsy accident; at worst, it was an attempt to tell a story using completely the wrong approach and completely the wrong tools. In either case, it ruins the whole show from a writing perspective.
'Gay villain syndrome' is something I started to notice clearly from approximately 2011's The Three Musketeers. While that was a B-movie at best, and not a good demonstration of anything, it made me notice quite strongly that these days, people seem to paint villains as stereotypically gay with alarming regularity. Now, I use 'gay' in a completely non-derisive sense here; I mean that, quite literally, they exhibit stereotypes associated with homosexual men in our society. Gomorra does exactly this with Conte's character, to a point where it is not only detrimental to the story, but it is blatantly destructive to their other attempts to define his character.
Now, I am not in any way against gay characters in any story, stereotypical or not, positive or not, but I believe that when writing such characters, much as you would write female characters, or characters of colour, or indeed, any minority whatsoever, you have to take care not to reinforce negative portrayals of a marginalized group which could lead to added misconceptions and hardship for those individuals. A notable example of a film that did this right is Live and Let Die, where great efforts were made to have the villains be intelligent and capable, while portraying Bond as outright incompetent relative them in many scenes, as all the villains were African-American. A notable example of a film that did this wrong was Fifty Shades of Grey; setting aside the fact that the source material is a literary trash fire, the BDSM community is already regarded extremely negatively, and the portrayals of that community in Fifty Shades is basically the equivalent to making a film in the modern era that portrays all African-Americans as lazy, unemployed and violent.
This is the main reason why 'gay villain syndrome' offends me; it is a weak attempt to villainize someone by using negative societal stereotypes about a marginalized group. It is also lazy: you're basically doing the filmographic equivalent of dogwhistling, with all the lack of creativity that it implies. Lastly, the 'gayness' of this character is typically not part of their identity in any way: in a sense, the character 'acts' gay, but isn't really in any way part of that community. This can be as subtle as the heavy villainous use of eyeliner that has come into fashion in the 2010s in Hollywood, or as obvious as the portrayal of the Duke of Buckingham in the aforementioned Three Musketeers.
It is this last thing that is most corrosive to the character, as it essentially forces us into an interpretation of their other actions, and other attempts at developing their character, which ranges from absurd to self-contradictory. Let's take the Duke of Buckingham again: the core conflict in The Three Musketeers is a romantic line between the King, his Queen and the Duke. However, given how gay the Duke acts, one has to wonder why on Earth such a romantic line would even work. While the plot for that abomination of a film has more holes than a Swiss cheese, this particular one is wide enough to drive a train through, completely destroying any sense of the character. Every action and every attempt to develop the Duke's character is painted relative his acted gayness, which doesn't fit at all.
Conte in Gomorra suffers from the same problem, but to an even greater degree, because Gomorra is a much higher-quality production. All of Conte's mannerisms suggest stereotypical gayness. Some of these may be attributable to his Italian styling, which is something Ciro suffers from to some degree as well; however, while Ciro merely appears somewhat too soft and feminine, Conte takes that about ten notches higher into full stereotypical gayness. His voice, his mannerisms, his everything just radiates an image of the gay stereotype painted by our society, despite his character never exhibiting any kind of sexual attraction to men either on or off-screen. Considering the extremely low opinion of gay people (especially gay men) held by the Neapolitan crime syndicates, if the Conte were actually gay, he'd try everything in his power not to act that way, or, following the example of Pacho from Narcos (a far far better portrayal of a gay character in a homophobic criminal setting), he would go all-out with it. Conte does neither, which suggests either bad writing or active malice (namely, they either stumbled into the 'gay villain syndrome' or purposefully wrote it in). This actually makes many of the attempts to paint him as tough or fearless laughable: the scene where he describes that he gives up one thing he really likes every year, instead of painting him as a hardcore Stoic, makes him look like a First World Problems poster child. This is, aside from offensive and lazy, extremely corrosive to his character, making it hard for me to take him seriously in any way.
Whether accidental or purposeful, the 'gay villain syndrome' does not belong in any work of art, and its presence in Gomorra is a stain.
I wanted to like Gomorra. At first, I did like it, so much so that I really thought it would be my favourite show for a long time. The fact that it's currently in its third season probably says that many in the audience agree. However, its fatal flaw completely ruined the series for me. Out of sheer interest, I tried watching the second season, but saw that none of my criticisms had been addressed or properly explained, and I basically gave up on it after one episode. Thanks to this, Gomorra now serves as an exemplar of two things:
In the end, Gomorra ends up being stylistically brilliant but substantially lacking; an excellent start ruined by a terrible flaw. Thus, I give it 6/10; slightly above average. If it were not for its fatal flaw, that would have been an 8 or even a 9. Unfortunately, though, it ended up being mediocre in comparison to the work of its brain-parent Roberto Saviano.