The drug trade crime drama from Gomorrah writer Roberto Saviano arrives in the UK.
The mafioso melodrama Gomorrah has been one of the breakaway hits of the last ten years – based off the novel by Italian writer Robert Saviano, it was so excoriating in how it viewed it’s subject matter, that it famously saw the author forced into hiding after the crime clan it documented ordered his death. But before the television series, there was a standalone film. Gomorrah (2008) eschewed some of the more problematic aspects of it’s small-screen successor in how it framed it’s anti-hero characters, instead opting to evidence the actions of the mafia in a bleak, nihilistic manner that juxtaposed the daily mundanity of managing criminal enterprise against random bursts of spectacularly cruel violence. It was, and still is, an absolute gut punch of a movie.
ZeroZeroZero takes that viscerality and runs with it. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Saviano, the show is a joint production with Sky, Amazon and Canal+ – and that combination means the end result looks expensive. This is easily the most cinematic crime drama you will see this year. This widescreen feel is partly down to show-runner Stefano Sollima, who cut his teeth on Gomorrah and Romanzo Criminale but has since gone on to work on films such as Subarra and Sicario: Day Of The Soldado. Sollima’s ability with this kind of story is abundantly clear, and every frame is absolutely beautiful – even when the actions displayed within those shots are not.
The quality doesn’t stop there – ZeroZeroZero boasts an all-star cast that spans continents, including Gabriel Byrne, Andrea Riseborough, Dane DeHaan, and Tchéky Karyo as well as a sprawling international roster of talented character actors. Every role feels perfectly cast, and every actor inhabits that role with a singular degree of commitment. It’s rare to find a drama so evenly excellent in the actors’ performances, and unlike most shows with Hollywood talent attached, there’s no reluctance to terminate them if the script demands it. Nobody is safe in this show. To complete the roll-call of quality contributors, post-rock legends Mogwai provide the frankly incredible soundtrack, whose harsh tonality and abrasive textures feels particularly alien to this style of drama, and yet works incredibly well in context.
ZeroZeroZero refers to the purest form of pasta flour, 000, which evolved into a nickname among drug traffickers for the purest cocaine available. The show’s over-arching narrative follows a single shipment of this pure, uncut cocaine from Mexico to Italy. But the amount of players and plots involved in that deceptively simple set-up is over-whelming, a vast network of internecine alliances and betrayals that is constantly mutating. The evolution of these connections might risk incoherence, but Sollima helps familarise the viewer with what’s going on by using a Rashomon-style approach, centering each episode around a key incident that is then explored in multiple ways from the viewpoint of different characters. It’s a creative technique, but also plays a functional role in providing the viewer enough mental space to keep track of the narrative whilst also centering on the unfolding action.
The story follows three groups across three countries and their interactions with the shipment. We begin with the sellers of the cocaine, in Mexico. Here, the refined world of wealth that the top narcos enjoy is juxtaposed with the raw brutality of the street war between their foot-soldiers and the Army corps enlisted to stop them. It’s a war that sees an indescribable amount of collateral damage, as a staggering volume of civilians are caught in the crossfire. Amidst all this carnage stands squad leader Manuel Contreras (Harold Torres), a god-fearing soul who believes he is on a divine quest to dominate the drug trade in his native country. How he actualises that belief makes for some of the most jaw-dropping moments in the show, and Torres performance is one of the stand-out elements of the series. The sheer determination he exudes is bone-chilling in itself, but equally terrifying is the pall he casts over those around him, to the extent of being almost deified by his cult-like followers.
Over the ocean and deep in the hillsides of rural Italy, we meet the buyers of the shipment. Elderly boss Don Minu (Adriano Chiaramida) is ensconced in a secret bunker to avoid capture by the police, and it’s from here he directs his enterprise as his power slowly fades. The shipment represents salvation, and a renewed stature amongst the disparate families that make up his criminal network – a fact known all too well by his grandson Stefano (Giuseppe De Domenico), who plots to stop the shipment arriving and thus condemn his grandfather to death. Stefano’s journey from arrogant heir to desperate savage in this pursuit is a compelling arc, but also feels unusually doomed from the start – it’s never clear from one scene to the next if he’ll survive as he twists his allegiances to benefit his task. De Domenico is excellent in his portrayal of the villainy required to succeed in this cruel world, but a special mention must be made for Chiaramida, who is absolutely incredible as the embattled septuagenarian with a vicious streak a mile wide, undimmed by advancing age.
Finally, we head to America and meet our brokers, the Lynwoods. Patriarch Edward (Gabriel Byrne) has managed a legitimate shipping company for years, at the same time providing the logistical link between the import and export of cocaine across continents. Complicit in this conspiracy is daughter Emma (Andrea Riseborough), who helps navigate these deals alongside long-time collaborator Francois (Tchéky Karyo). It’s an enterprise largely devoid of the grim realities of the criminals they connect, and one that allows them to keep son Chris (Dane DeHaan) out of the family business. But when tragedy strikes, Emma is forced to bring Chris into the fold, and their efforts to ensure the delivery of the shipment that will make or break their business occupies a large amount of the show’s running time. It also affords the most spectacular locations, taking them through several countries – each with their own particular dangers to navigate – and their journey is perhaps the most fantastical element of the show.
This is largely in part due to Chris being the only truly ‘innocent’ character that the show has to offer, making him as close as we get to a conduit for the audience. The Lynwoods close relationship – one born out of a shared grief for the death of their mother – adds a much-needed emotional weight to the story, and amplifies the brutalisation the siblings endure in following their cargo to it’s destination. It’s also a sly commentary on the aloofness that Westerners enjoy away from the realities of a harsher world, and how that insulation evaporates the farther from home they get. The Lynwoods’ story is one of parallels – whilst Chris succumbs to the illness that killed his mother, Emma evolves into the amoral equivalent of her father – and their arc is the most compelling to witness, perhaps because it’s the one most concerned with family.
In comparison, the concept of family elsewhere in the story is purposefully devoid of warmth. The show is relentlessly grim in it’s depiction of the fragility of familial ties. The reality in the worlds of the buyers and sellers is that family – or any human kindness – is a weakness that can be exploited. Again a story of parallels – it’s the love of family that is the cause of Stefano’s downfall and Don Minu’s heartache, and it’s the rejection of this love that allows Manuel to divorce himself from emotion and create his empire. There’s also a reflection here on the old and new worlds of criminal codes – Don Minu advocates that woman and children are removed from the conflicts of men, whilst Manuel has no reservations in killing anybody and anything that gets in the way of his goals. Minu’s perverted code of honour is a fallacy – it’s designed to help ameliorate the murderous actions of his criminal clan. Manuel, if nothing else, is honest about what crime at their level really involves. Murder is a mechanical byproduct of his work, and it’s executed with gruesome efficiency.
A lot has changed in crime drama since Gomorrah first aired. When it did, there was very little on television like it. Since it’s success, the surfeit of dramas based around the drug trade has grown exponentially. The most obvious comparison would be with Netflix’s hit show Narcos, but like Gomorrah before it, that series was invested in the domestic minutiae of it’s characters rather than the global overview that ZeroZeroZero provides; one is a close-up, the other widescreen. Perhaps a more salient comparison would be with Steven Soderbergh’s film Traffic, where the drug trade is examined from multiple angles – and similarly, found to be unstoppable. Because despite the incalculable level of bloodshed involved in the trade, there is always the person on the very end of the process predestined to pay for that packet of pleasure born out of the misery of others – and the wealth that transaction brings a select few. If nothing else, ZeroZeroZero proves that money is the most addictive substance of all.
ZeroZeroZero is currently showing on Sky Atlantic in UK and is also available as a boxset on NOW TV