Neapolitan Mafia Through Roberto Saviano's Eyes: "Gomorra" and "Piranhas"

"See Naples and Die".

Jun 3, 2020
Dimitris Passas

Roberto Saviano is one of Europe's top mafia experts of our time and his debut non-fiction book, Gomorrah: A Personal Journey Into the Violent International Empire of Naple's Organised Crime System, has been a huge commercial as well as critical success. The book had sold more than three million copies and it was translated in 52 countries around the globe. In Gomorrah Saviano combines literature and investigative journalism in order to expose the real, ugly face of Camorra, the omnipotent crime syndicate operating in southern Italy, mainly in the region of Campania. Camorra is involved in numerous illegal activities such as heroin and cocaine smuggling, prostitution, racketeering, and its members are notorious for their excessive use of violence. Saviano has first-hand knowledge of the inner workings of Camorra as he had infiltrated one of their clans and thus he learned a great deal about Mafiosi and their shady dealings. In his books he makes several important revelations, naming many top dogs and their umbrageous businesses, and the price he paid for that bravery was more than heavy. Ever since he wrote his first book, Saviano lives under constant police protection, surrounded by police officers and bodyguards, and each public appearance of his, even it is for something trivial like getting out to drink a beer, has to be planned three days in advance. His family is in hiding as when "Gomorrah" was published he has received multiple death threats from many criminal families in Naples. Apparently, members of Camorra hate being in the spotlight and they despise this kind of publicity. Saviano has stated in an interview he gave that "It's my reader who bothers criminal organizations, it's not me. My reader is what they don't want. The fact that, at this moment, we are talking about it, that all the newspapers talked about it, that books continue to be published, and that documentaries continue to come out is what they don't want; they don't want attention on themselves, on their names, and, above all, on their businesses". The vast impact that Saviano's work has on his own life signifies the massive power of the Neapolitan Mafia for which murder is a normal, everyday business. Saviano writes: "In the Camorra system murder is necessary. It's like depositing money in the bank, purchasing a franchise". The Neapolitan mafia is responsible for more than 4.000 deaths during the last 30 years, while Scampia, one of Naple's toughest neighborhoods is considered to be the world's biggest drug-pushing locality.

In 2008, Matteo Garrone adapted the book into a feature film and Saviano was one of the film's screenwriters. The movie was hailed by both international audiences and critics as a modern classic and today it remains one of the top mafia films ever made. Forget the classic American gangster films like Godfather, Goodfellas, or Scarface. In Gomorra, the audience takes a raw, unfiltered glimpse into the inner workings of Camorra. There is no glorification of either the gangsters or the violence itself. Instead, we witness the morbidity and brutality of the criminal lifestyle in a naturalistic, documentary-like manner. Nevertheless, Saviano stresses the influence of the above films to real-life gangsters. It's not cinema that imitates crime but the exact opposite. In another interview he gave, the author and screenwriter told a rather amusing story about a renowned Italian gangster who built the exact same villa that Tony Montana has in Brian De Palma's Scarface. For Saviano, the only way to accurately portray the gangster lifestyle is to show their daily routine which is filled with the obsession to acquire more and more money. In order to understand the Mafia phenomenon in its entirety, we should follow the money trail. How it is acquired and at what price.

The book and film's backdrop is the infamous "Scampia Feud" that took place in 2004 and 2005. This was an internal war between Camorra clans and more specifically, between the dominant Di Lauro clan and the so-called "secesionists", "a breakaway faction in the northern suburbs of Naples that tried to assert its control over drugs and prostitution rackets in the area". The movie's first scene is a mass murder taking place in a tanning salon and this is the first act of war, signifying the beginning of the "Scampia Feud". Both groups fought ferociously hard and even the most experienced Italian police officers were stunned by the extent of the atrocities. This is the film's background and Garrone, who lived in Scampia for two months before beginning shooting the movie, focuses on the lives of ordinary people who happen to live and work in Naple's mean streets and who are caught in the middle of this merciless war. The story unfolds through multiple perspectives, following the lives of five persons whose life has become inextricably linked to the Camorra.

Don Ciro (Gianfelice Imparato) is a money carrier, working for the Di Lauro family. He is meek and timid, trying to do his job without getting in any trouble. When he is approached by two angry secessionists who threaten his life, Don Ciro will have to pick sides once and for all. Toto is a teenage boy, growing up in Scampia and he witnesses the everyday drug trafficking and murder taking place in his neighborhood. Toto is enthralled by the mafia lifestyle and he is soon recruited by the Mafiosi. There is a great scene where Toto wears a bulletproof vest only to be shot by a senior gangster. After the shooting, he says to Toto: "Now you're a man". Marco (Marco Maror) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) are two youngsters who have watched too many gangster films and their sole aspiration in life is to become the number one gangsters. Their idol is Tony Montana, the fictional protagonist of Scarface, and they often refer to the popular film. When Marco and Ciro steal some weapons from some very nasty individuals they will find themselves in deep trouble. Their fate is to be killed and dumped like human garbage. Franco (Toni Servillo) is a businessman who works as a provider of a low-cost toxic waste disposal service. He, along with a waste management graduate, Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) approaches the local authorities to offer their services, but soon Roberto realizes that this is not a job he would really like to do. In their final showdown, Roberto attempts to unmask Franco's hypocrisy by saying to him: "You save a worker in Mestre and kill a family in Mondragone". Franco replies that this is how the world works and Roberto is walking away. Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalapo) is a tailor whose boss is closely linked to the Camorra. When he accepts a night job that entails the training of Chinese garment workers, he will have to face the gangsters' wrath.

It is worth mentioning that Gomorra cast some real-life gangsters who were later arrested and imprisoned for a number of illegal activities such as extortion, drug trafficking, and drug dealing. This adds to the overall realistic feel of the movie. The violence in the film is depicted without any attempt to lionize or celebrate it. It seems random, senseless and inhuman because that's the way it really is.

In 2016, Saviano wrote another book under the title Piranhas (original title: Las Paranzas dei Bambini) that explored the activity of child-gangs in today's Naples. It is a fictional account of a rather disturbing true story. It's about a bunch of underaged kids who swarm the streets of the city, dreaming of becoming the new bosses, lacking basic human empathy. Those kids know that their life expectancy is less than short and they are certain that they will be dead even before they reach their twenties. Nevertheless, they prefer to live five or seven years more being the kings and having everything that anyone would ever desire, rather than slave away to a job for more than 40 years. They want it all and they want it now. Saviano said in an interview he gave about Piranhas that those kids live by the motto: "If you die ninety, you are old news, but if you die twenty you become a legend". They admire ISIS terrorists because they are not afraid to die. During an interview that Saviano gave, he showed a video clip shot in Scampia where the teenagers behind the singer are holding ISIS flags.

The film that was based on Saviano's book was released in 2019 and it was directed by Claudio Giovannesi. The main protagonist is 15-year old Nicola (Franzesco Di Napoli), a young man with no future. He has dropped out of school and he is hanging around with his teenage buddies, crawling the city with their motorbikes. Nicola's mother is the owner of a small business and she is forced to pay the local mobsters a serious amount of money every now and then. Nicola is frustrated and angry, and he very quickly realizes that his only hope is to become one of the people he admires, that is a gangster. He begins to work for a local kingpin selling weed outside the city's university and he is fascinated by the easy money. Nicola's gang rapidly evolves and soon they have their own weapons that will help them to impose their will on the rival kid-gangs. Things escalate and Nicola has to pay a heavy price for his ambitions. The film's ending is bleak and non-redemptive, leaving the audience with a bitter taste.

There are some major differences between the book and the film, so if you have already read Piranhas, perhaps you will be disappointed. The film is much softer than the book in terms of violence and brutality while the protagonist, Nicola, is portrayed in an entirely different way. In the book, Nicola is a ruthless gangster who will not hesitate for a second to kill or rape. He is drawn to Machiavelli and he is fascinated by the noble hierarchy presented in his book The Prince. The film's Nicola, on the other hand, is a different character as he seems to have a certain level of empathy and some ethical scruples. Piranhas is not equal to Gomorrah in terms of quality and cinematography, nevertheless, it is a movie that deeply troubles the viewer due to its distressing theme. It is shocking to watch teenagers acting like common thugs and the knowledge that this is a story based on reality makes it even harder to watch. You should also keep in mind that both films are in the Neapolitan dialect so even if you know Italian, it will be hard -or even impossible- to comprehend the language spoken. When Gomorrah was released in the Italian cinemas, it was subtitled as even the natives couldn't understand a word.

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