To See Naples and Die

'Gomorrah' is all about crime, drugs, killing and maiming. It is dark and gruesome, and lacks empathy and humor. So why watch it?

Michael Handelzalts
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'Gomorrah.' A city of sin with a remnant of humanity.
'Gomorrah.' A city of sin with a remnant of humanity.
Michael Handelzalts

If you have seen only the first episode, of the Italian TV series “Gomorrah” (on HOT VOD, a service that celebrates its 10th birthday this month), you know that it is about much more than a twist on the title of this column, to wit: “to see how people, innocent and guilty, get killed in Naples.”

The killers – and there are many of them – belong to the warring crime clans in southern Italy’s sunny and beautiful city of Naples today. The hub of the plot is the Savastano clan, with its capo di familia, Don Pietro, incarcerated pending a hearing. His organized crime activities are being run (while he tries to stay on top of events from prison), by his wife, Imma, and son Genaro, who is being groomed to step into his father’s big shoes when the time comes, but is spectacularly unfit for the job. The pivotal character is Ciro, a handsome young henchman in the Savastano fold, groomed by Don Pietro to be Genaro’s mentor in the life of crime. Ciro is trying to follow an agenda of his own, which consists of the uneasy task of staying alive and on top of things.

This is as much as I’m willing to tell you about the plot, for fear of being summarily executed without a trial by the anti-spoiler mob. Think of “The Sopranos” minus the humor, much darker and harsher, and set in Italy (and in Italian, the most beautiful language, with Hebrew subtitles; as the series ran in the U.K., there must be an English-subtitled version on the net). Think of “The Godfather” minus Marlon Brando.

But there’s a lot to be said about the abundant cultural references to the real-life events, past and present, that are the nuclei of the series: the 2006 book by Robert Saviano (10 million copies in 51 languages sold worldwide) was the origin of the fictional version of the real-life network of criminal clans (the Camorra), reincarnated into an Italian movie in 2008 and now into a TV series (“Gomorrah”).

First things first: the common name – Camorra – of the Italian-Neapolitan version of Sicily’s Cosa Nostra mafia is probably the most successful Italian export to the U.S., developed and improved by American Jews with a lot of input from local talent. It is probably a hybrid of two words, originating in the early 18th century: capo (the head of a family or organization) and morra (an Italian game in which two contenders wave their hands in the air, with the crowd betting on the number of fingers being waved). The betting allowed for rigging, of course, with dirty fingers being stuck in every pie from the sky, and severed – when stuck in a particularly envious and evil eye – summarily, if need be.

The expression “To see Naples and die” originated in the second half of the 18th century. It is attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and found in his Italian diaries (March 3, 1787) in the original Italian “Vedi Napoli e poi muori!”, its English phrasing formulated by W.H. Auden.

Saviano infiltrated one or more of the Camorra clans in Naples. His book is supposedly nonfiction, based on facts and real-life events, but is presented in an invented, or disguised – thickly or thinly – setting (i.e., the Savastano family is supposedly fictional). In order not to overuse the “faction” (a concoction of fact and fiction) label, another one was invented for Saviano’s undertaking and achievement: UNO – Unidentified Narrative Object, a media version of an UFO – a sort of series-a-clef, without admitting who holds the key. That did not spare Saviano the need to get police protection for fear of lethal reprisals from narrative objects who may have identified themselves in the book, movie and series.

The reference to that biblical city of iniquity, Gomorrah, is both based in reality and purely coincidental. It also rings a bell in the collective mind. Apparently, a parish priest in Casal di Principe, where the Camorra ruled by terror, once dared to sound a dissenting voice: “Time has come to stop being a Gomorrah.” He was killed by the Camorra in March 1994.

Incidentally, Gomorrah’s becoming a symbol for a second sin-city is a result of guilt by association. It is an accomplice of Sodom, forever linked to it in the collective mind by the small and seemingly insignificant word “and.” When God is worried by the cries of woe emanating from the Canaanite plains (Genesis, chapters 14, 17, 19) he dispatches his emissaries of reconnaissance and punishment primarily to Sodom. We are not told in Genesis what exactly the Sodomites were guilty of; the most we can gather is that they were xenophobic, and used to rape their male tourists (hence, the word “sodomy,” something the macho mafiosi much abhor). There is no word in the Bible about any wrongdoings in Gomorrah. And yet, their city will forever be considered a criminal (w)hor(e)nets nest.

So, if it’s all about crime, drugs, killing and maiming, lacking in empathy and humor, dark and gruesome, why watch it at all? Mainly because it is weirdly human. Don Pietro may be worried about his spoiled son not being fit to inherit the sin-kingdom of ill-gotten spoils, and yet he will not disinherit him. He may be very choosy in deciding on a sofa for his living room at one moment, and killing someone with his bare hands the next. He may be unswerving in megalomania even when in solitary confinement, and in the same breath let us feel how paranoically uneasy lies the head that just ordered severing several other heads.

“Except the LORD of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, and we should have been like unto Gomorrah” – says Isaiah the prophet (chapter 1, verse 9). We eagerly watch a series like “Gomorrah” to find in ourselves that small remnant of humanity.