So, I haven't blogged in a while, because most of the technical stuff I've been
doing has consisted of some combination of:
- The obvious
- The painful
- The painfully obvious
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...
A note on spoilers
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.
What is this?
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
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 use of colour.
- The use of juxtaposition cuts in key scenes.
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.
Motivation and plot (at first)
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:
- We see their humanity;
- Observe some kind of mistreatment of them or those close to them; and
- See that they're better than those who mistreat them.
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
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
(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.
Quality of acting
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 Bads 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
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.
Ciro's character is mishandled with extreme prejudice
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
- We see their humanity;
- Observe some kind of mistreatment of them or those close to them; and
- See that they're better than those who mistreat them.
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
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' strikes hard
'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
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.
Conclusion and rating
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:
- How to royally screw up an anti-hero portrayal
- The way cinematography and scoring should be done
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.