January 12, 2022

Watching “Gomorrah” on the First Anniversary of the Capitol Attack

By Stuart Mitchner

O what an account I could give you of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world — I feel a spirit in my Brain would lay it forth pleasantly.”

—John Keats, from one of his last letters

In virtually every episode of Gomorrah, the Italian series about organized crime in Naples, currently streaming on HBO Max, there are glimpses of the setting that Keats, dying at 25, longed to put into words.

I found some words that accord with my general impression of Gomorrah — “I dream of a darkness darker than black” — in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (“The Capitol Police and the Scars of Jan. 6”). The quote comes from the journal of an officer who “felt himself  spiraling downward in the days following the attack.”

Curious but Wary

For years my wife and I had been curious about but wary of Gomorrah, which debuted on Sundance in 2014. So we kept our distance, under a self-imposed form of protective custody. And now we’re paying HBO Max to be sucked into the vortex of a kill-or-be-killed, no-light-at-the-end-of-the tunnel, “darker-than-black” viewing experience.

We finished Season 2 on January 6. The images replayed on the first anniversary of the attack on the Capitol made it clear that no amount of simulated murder and mayhem, however brilliantly shot and graphically executed, could compare with the shocking spectacle of a real-life insurrection, and for all the staged shootings, beatings, throat-slashings and other innumerable acts of violence in Gomorrah nothing could match the glaring intensity of the moment a young cop is crushed by the roaring, pounding mob, pinned against a door frame, screaming in pain, crying out in agony. The real thing is very hard to watch. You have to look away even now, when you know the officer in question survived.

Winners and Losers

The blood-drenched world of the Neapolitan Camorra is the real thing, of course. Roberto Saviano knows. The author of the non-fiction “personal journey” that inspired the series has been in hiding since 2006, living his life in fear, his every move outside each so-called “safe house” organized around police escorts and armored vehicles. Saviano’s Gomorrah begins with quotes from Hannah Arendt (“Comprehension … means the unpremeditated, attentive facing up to, and resisting of, reality — whatever it may be”) and Machiavelli (“Winners have no shame, no matter how they win”). I found both quotes equally relevant to the events of January 6, 2021, especially if you read “losers” for Machiavelli’s “winners.” As for the question of facing up to or resisting reality, most congressional Republicans chose to go into hiding rather than mark the anniversary of the violation of their workplace.

The Power of Art

Reviewing Gomorrah for Vulture in August 2016, Matt Zoller Seitz says, “If your main complaint about The Sopranos was that there was too much about suburban entitlement and psychiatry and not enough scenes where people discuss how they’re going to kill somebody and then kill them, this show is made for your needs.”

What makes the show worth watching has less to do with killing than with the power of the writing, direction, the extraordinary cinematography, the imaginative use of sound effects and music, and, above all, the acting. Avoid at all costs the dubbed version of Gomorrah. As with the Spanish series Money Heist, which recently ended its magnificent run, you have to hear the actors speaking; the language is the lifeblood of the show, its most important sound effect, and subtitles are absolutely necessary.

Savastano’s Glasses

The first season was dominated by Fortunato Cerlino’s performance as Don Pietro Savastano, the leader of the ruling Savastano clan. The word “performance” doesn’t do Cerlino justice. As with the handful of actors who carry the series, his power is in his presence. Don Pietro has no scars, no trademark quirks, no sartorial affect, no sinister vocal tics. With his neatly cut short gray hair and his wire-rimmed glasses (online sources ID them as Armani AR 5082), he could pass for an accountant, a lawyer, or even a professor of literature (just be sure to do your homework). The glasses are the essence of his identity, suggesting precision, gravitas, focus, and order, the way they sit so neatly and firmly on his face, intensifying the Savastano glare, a reversal of the stereotype of disability (“I won’t fight a man wearing glasses”); not to worry, Don Pietro keeps them on during one memorable scene. Having just walked out of an unresolved conversation with a subordinate whose word he doubts, he takes a few steps, registers the doubt, stops, turns around, goes back in the room, and beats the man to death with his bare hands. He doesn’t say a word, the glasses stay in place.

“Don’t Kill Patrizia!”

Played like poetry by Christiana Dell’anna, whose name itself is poem, Patrizia Santoro is one of the wonders of Gomorrah’s second season. The niece of a Savastano loyalist, she acts as Don Pietro’s messenger after his undercover return to Naples. To get to his carefully constructed and furnished hideout she has to navigate a tunnel, knock on a door he opens with a remote, and then crawl into his well-furnished refuge, an awkward action she manages with consummate grace. When she stands before Savastano, her presence is a match for his, she stands up to him even as she waits to do his bidding. Scene after scene, she’s the embodiment of stamina, intelligence, quiet beauty, even nobility. Until she took on her mission as messenger, my wife and I had hardly noticed her. Now we find ourselves appreciating everything she does, every move, the way she conducts herself, whether delivering information, fixing Don Pietro breakfast, or quietly offering her point of view on the situation developing in the outside world. After a season and a half of Gomorrah’s “darkness darker than black,” Patrizia gives the show a touch of human poetry that makes us impatient with the chilly, regal manner Don Pietro maintains as she tends to his needs without the slightest hint of subservience, and soon we’re urging him to at least thank her, “show her you appreciate her,” but no, not a word. And when at one point he seems to suspect her of disloyalty, we fear for her, and with good reason, given the Gomorrah dynamic, so we beg the fates of the series, in one voice, “Please don’t kill Patrizia!”

A Great Moment

Right now I’m thinking of a series-defining moment late in Season 2 involving Patrizia and the show’s central character Ciro Di Marzio (Marco D’Amore), also known as L’immortale. Don Pietro’s most trusted soldier until he changes sides, Ciro (pronounced “chiro”) is the hero (or anti-hero) of the series, if “hero” describes the one person you continue rooting for even after he performs monstrous acts. “Rooting” means you absolutely don’t want him to die. You’ve already seen him survive situations on his knees, with a gun at his head or a knife at his throat. Now he’s holding the gun, and it’s aimed at Patrizia, who stands unflinching before Ciro as she stood before Don Pietro. She’s shielding her young brother, the barrel of the gun is an inch from her face, she’s waiting to die. “I’m the messenger,” she says. “I’m the one you have to kill.”

Probably I should have yelled “spoiler alert” long ago, but when or if you take the plunge, by the time you get to this moment, you’re well aware that these are two indispensable characters. Still pointing the gun at Patrizia, his arm steady, fully extended, Ciro tells her and himself, “You’re right, that’s what I do, that’s what killers, soldiers do, people like us. The dead are piling up. All the dead I left behind come looking for me at night. They scream. I’ve got no peace. That’s why I can’t kill any more. That’s the difference between him and me.”

It’s also the difference between Ciro and every other killer or dealer in the series. He alone has Bogart’s film noir charisma. By “me and him,” he means Don Pietro, who ordered the point blank shooting of Ciro’s 12-year-old daughter.

“St. Agnes Eve”

I just finished reading “The Eve of St. Agnes,” in John Keats, the Longman’s Cultural Edition edited by Princeton English professor Susan J. Wolfson. In her introduction to the poem, Wolfson describes an Italian background with shadings worthy of Gomorrah: Agnes, the patron saint of virgins, was a 13-year-old Christian martyr “in early fourth-century Rome, condemned to a night of gang-rape in the brothels before her execution. This first torture was prevented by a miraculous storm of thunder and lightning, a climate that appears at the end of Keats’s poem.”

I should mention that, as Wolfson points out, Keats does not describe the Saint’s life and death, but “instead writes of a night of burning young love in a winter world.”

On St. Agnes Eve, January 20, Wolfson and Fordham University’s John Bugg will host a virtual community reading of the poem, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. To register for the Zoom event, contact wolfson@princeton.edu by January 18.