Inspired by Roberto Saviano's dangerous expose of organized crime in Naples, and presumably also by Matteo Garrone's film adaptation of Saviano's book, Stefano Sollima's TV series debuted in Italy in 2014 and reached the U.S., subtitled rather than dubbed, on the Sundance Channel this summer. By the time the first season premiered in America, a second season had wrapped in Italy, with more reported on the way. Sollima is the son of the late Sergio Sollima, who directed some decent crime films back in the 1970s along with his better known spaghetti westerns. Perhaps fitting for a second-generation director, Gomorrah is a blend of old and new. It's still relatively new in its deromanticized portrait of Italian organized crime, leaving behind the stylish men of respect for tattooed goons in hoodies like you'd see just about anywhere on earth. But at its heart the TV Gomorrah is a familiar sort of family saga of tragic dimensions, anchored by powerful performances by Maria Pia Calzone and Salvatore Esposito as a mother and son struggling to hold their crime family together after Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino) is sent to prison, and even better work by Marco D'Amore as the man who comes between mother and son and eventually becomes a mortal enemy to both.
Gennaro Savastano (Esposito) starts out as a spoiled, overgrown kid who idolizes one of his dad's best soldiers, Ciro Di Marzio (D'Amore). Don Pietro wants Ciro to make more of a man of his boy by taking him out on his first killing. Genny is eager but uncertain, impatient to prove himself yet prone to freezing at crucial moments. Tasked with killing a man, Genny manages to wound him but can't bring himself to finish the victim off. Shamed by his failure despite Ciro's attempt to cover for him, Genny wipes out on his motorcycle and the accident leads to Don Pietro's arrest. Caught speeding on the way to the hospital, Pietro is caught carrying drugs by cops who refuse to be bribed or intimidated. At first it looks like Pietro will keep running things from behind bars but the state isn't as pliant as it used to be. As he's forced into solitary confinement, it becomes Genny's responsibility to lead the family. Ciro sees this as his big chance to be the power behind the throne as Genny's top adviser, but Genny's mother Imma (Calzone) doesn't trust Ciro. Lady Imma, as she's usually called, is not your grandmother's mob wife. She knows full well what her husband does and has some strong ideas on how to run a mob herself. She effectively becomes Don Pietro's regent and makes a point of marginalizing Ciro. Imma has a global vision as well as solid plans for expanding operations on the ground, and she doesn't scruple at having people whacked to further her plans. People who dig the powerful women on American TV should see Imma as a sister-in-arms.
In her most drastic move to separate Genny and Ciro, Imma sends her son on a dangerous mission to Honduras to arrange for a new supply of drugs while sending Ciro to Spain to negotiate with an old enemy of his, Salvatore Conte (Marco Palvetti), whose mother's apartment was torched by Ciro in the first scene of the series. For a while, you wonder how ruthless Imma is, whether she's interested in either Ciro or Genny coming home. But each mission proves a success, despite some rough treatment for both men. Genny returns transformed by his ordeal: leaner, meaner and initially embittered toward his mother. But if Ciro thinks that things will improve for him, he soon learns otherwise. Genny is now determined to be his own master, and finally begins to reconcile with Imma when she explains that that was why she sent him to Honduras. Whether she expected him to return as vicious as he becomes -- he now can shoot a waiter in cold blood for reminding him of having been a fat boy -- is doubtful, but they soon join forces in Genny's scheme to put a new political regime, beholden to him personally, in power at the next election.
When Genny's man wins it looks like all's well with the Savastanos, but Giro is tired of being trod upon. Seeing no room for advancement with Genny and Imma in the way, he decides to bring the whole thing down by secretly provoking a war between the Savastanos and the Contes. Until this point you could sympathize with Ciro because for all his amoral ruthlessness he has seemed a good soldier and faithful to Don Pietro, and you could argue that first Imma, then Genny, have treated him unfairly. But in the last hours of the first season Ciro proves himself a monster, goading a dumb kid into killing a Conte man, on the assumption that Genny will be blamed, then trying to blot out his trail by killing the kid. When the kid proves elusive, Ciro kidnaps the kid's girlfriend and tortures her to death to find out what she might know. The kid ends up in Conte's hands and confesses that Ciro put him up to the killing, while Imma receives a cellphone that luckily recorded Ciro's kidnapping of the girl as she was trying to send a message. This sets up a showdown between the show's two real masterminds, Imma and the "Immortal" Ciro, as Gomorrah builds to a suspenseful climax -- in fact, a double cliffhanger -- that tests Imma's ability to think steps ahead of Ciro and Ciro's survival instincts and pure luck. To go into more detail would spoil a show that doesn't deserve such treatment; the final hour is one of the most exciting hours of TV I've seen in a while, and I regret to report that it had me actually rooting for one group of brutal murderers and drug dealers to defeat another. That's really a tribute both to Marco D'Amore's success at playing a slow-burn villain and a natural empathy for family that Sollima and his writers exploit masterfully. It's good to know that Season Two is already in the can, though I wonder what can be done with so many in the large cast eliminated. Now it's just a matter of how soon Sundance wants to release it. For me, it cannot be too soon.