ROME — Roberto Saviano’s best-selling 2007 book, “Gomorrah,” his reportage about the Neapolitan crime syndicate the Camorra, was dark. Matteo Garrone’s award-winning 2009 film adaptation was darker. And the hit Italian television series of the same name is by far the darkest.
“Gomorrah” the TV show, which makes its United States debut on SundanceTV on Wednesday, Aug. 24, tells the story of a newly invented fictional crime family. And its depiction of a brutal underworld has broken new ground in Italy, where television tends toward sap and kitsch. It has also prompted a debate about whether it paints too sympathetic a picture of the criminals and too grim a picture of Naples (and Italy) at a time when grass-roots opposition to organized crime is thriving.
“There were two polemics about the series,” said Aldo Grasso, the television critic for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily. “The first is that it presents a bad image of Italy. The second is that it could be seen as a ‘bad teacher’ and that by watching the series a lot of young people might go to the other side.”
The show follows the drug-dealing Savastano clan after the arrest of its boss, Don Pietro, played with understated rage by Fortunato Cerlino, a veteran actor from Naples. Realizing that his teenage son and only heir, Genny (Salvatore Esposito), isn’t up to the job, he hands the reins to a trusted deputy, Ciro Di Marzio (Marco D’Amore). But it is his wife, Donna Imma (Maria Pia Calzone), who also takes on a leading role.
Stefano Sollima, the showrunner, said his strategy was to subvert the audience’s expectations about the Mafia genre. “What I always tried to do was to start from the exact opposite of the cliché,” said Mr. Sollima, who directs the show along with Francesca Comencini and Claudio Cupellini. “We created a family that’s totally dysfunctional but also extremely ruthless. You have a boss, and he isn’t the stereotype of the classic boss.”
Sky Italia, the show’s producer, took a risk on “Gomorrah,” which is far more violent that most of mainstream Italian television. People are shot point blank, and a boss forces an underling to drink his own urine as a loyalty test. The production cast largely unknown Neapolitan theater actors and, because it was filmed in Neapolitan dialect, has been shown with subtitles even in Italy.
Ciro Petrone, left, and Marco Macor in the film “Gomorrah.” Credit Mario Spada/IFC Films
“When we pitched this show, I could count on the fingers of one hand the people who said it was a great idea,” said Andrea Scrosati, the executive vice president for programming at Sky Italia. “Ninety percent of people said: ‘This is crazy. This is something in Neapolitan about a book that came out 10 years ago that they already did a movie about.’”
The bet has paid off. “Gomorrah” has generated tremendous buzz, especially on social media, and has become the most-watched show in the history of Sky Italia, the country’s largest pay television broadcaster. It has six times as many viewers in Italy as “Game of Thrones.” Its first season, which aired in 2014, had an average audience of 1.1 million, and that doubled to an average of 2.2 million during its second season in 2016. It has also become one of the few Italian television productions to enjoy success abroad and has been sold in 150 countries.
Critics have lauded the show as a morally complex family drama more akin to ancient epics, with fights to the death between fathers and sons, and a fearless exploration of the nature of evil.
“More than a crime saga,” Mr. Grasso wrote in Corriere della Sera, “‘Gomorrah’ could be defined as a metaphysical series in which the living and the dead are driven by a rapacious force. They are ghosts that pursue each other without a moment’s pause.”
That moral ambiguity gives the show its narrative power, he added in an interview. “In my view, the beauty of the series is that it has nothing to with Saviano’s book,” Mr. Grasso said. “It’s not a denunciation, it’s pure narrative.”
To attain its true-to-life quality, the script was revised constantly to be more realistic. A funeral scene for a Camorra figure that was originally set in a church was rewritten after the creators learned that crime figures are forbidden by the authorities from having public funerals, for security reasons, Mr. Sollima said. And a violent turf war in Scampia, outside Naples, during the filming of the first season inspired a story line for the show’s second.
As with Mr. Garrone’s 2009 film, much of the series “Gomorrah” was filmed in Scampia, in a vast public housing project named “Le Vele,” or “The Sails,” for its white, triangular shape. The buildings have become emblematic of the degradation of the area and its thriving drug trade. Many locals acted as extras.
“The effect that our presence had in the area was a positive one,” Mr. Sollima said. “We were a kind of distraction, a traveling show. We brought money. We brought all the extras. We were a source of entertainment and revenue.” (Locals had mixed feelings about the show.)
Still, there were complications. After the production rented a villa in Torre Annunziata, a town in the Naples outskirts, to use as the Savastano family house — a concrete box outside, baroque furniture inside — magistrates put the villa’s owners and the production company under investigation for Mafia ties. The production company was eventually cleared, but the villa owners are on trial on extortion charges. To continue filming, the production company had to pay the villa’s rent into an account controlled by magistrates.
Other authorities have paid close attention. Luigi de Magistris, the mayor of Naples since 2011 and a former anti-Mafia prosecutor, said the show presented an out-of-date reality. On his watch, he said, the city is working to tear down part of Le Vele and relocate inhabitants to new housing developments.
“For decades in Naples, there were ties between politicians and the Camorra,” he said. “And for the past six years, there haven’t been ties between politics and the Camorra. This office is at war against the Camorra, and this is an absolute novelty for Naples.”
Some critics have also fretted about the dubious effect the show may be having on some viewers. In May, a transgender man was attacked outside Naples, echoing a plot twist in the show’s second season.
The show’s creators dismiss the criticism. “I don’t think anybody in Baltimore thinks that criminal activity taking place in the port of Baltimore happened because there was ‘The Wire,’” Mr. Scrosati said.
Gaetano di Vaio, a filmmaker and actor from Scampia who served prison time for armed robbery and drug dealing before turning his life around and who worked with the television production, said the reality that inspired the show was even harsher. “I collaborated with the writers and director, and at a certain point we had to dial it back; there were things that were too violent and too ugly,” he said.
“The problem in Naples is the Camorra,” Mr. Di Vaio said. “Not ‘Gomorrah.’”