The realism of Gomorra, an interview

Interview by Enrico Grigoletti & Domenico Di Maio
Artwork Diego Soprana

Week 43
TELEVISION

The Italian TV series landscape is, and notoriously has been, rather dull — there is no doubt about it. It hurts to hear and it hurts to say (especially as an Italian). The reality is that the Bel Paese still struggles to export television oeuvres that capture international attention. If we compare that to Cinema (which is the closest cultural product to TV series) it seems that Italians can only waltz onto the international stage when we talk about Italian realism. Let’s list some of the classics – La Grande Bellezza, Cinema Paradiso and Gomorra.
It’s not surprising that Gomorra La serie was destined to raise eyebrows, especially outside of Italy. The reality that the series depicts is severe and often confronting. And yes, it is unfortunately real.
We examined this through the eyes of Gomorra’s costume designer Veronica Fragola.

Enrico Grigoletti) Gomorra is well known for it’s striking realism. This is reflected in the costuming, which perfectly depicts Neapolitan society. Would you like to tell us more about this?

Veronica Fragola) When designing the overall filmic look and costumes, there are certain films that require a lot of work on the realism front, so that they meet the aesthetic functions and verisimilitude that the director and the project requires.
Gomorra is certainly a series of this type, in that it is very important that the viewer never questions the reality he sees on screen. This requirement, which is based on the type of directing and storytelling, must be supported by an aesthetic structure where the costumes are never simply a material construction, but rather a glimpse of reality.

Domenico Di Maio) In this case, how do you proceed? I imagine that one must commence with ethnographic research?

VF) It often happens that I am confronted by people who believe that production design in the present is, in terms of costume, more casual and less researched, compared to period drama films.
The truth is that the initial research should be done with the same precision and care.
I am not Neopolitan, nor have I ever lived the Neapolitan reality that is described in the series. I therefore had to commence with aesthetic, sociological and psychological research. That requires an analysis and observation of desires and priorities of the culture of the Neapolitan realm, or a certain Naples, which is then reflected in the way of dressing, the way people wear their hair, and later, to be perceived by others through the image that we present to the world.
Unlike a period drama, for which the sources of research and analysis are books, pictures, documentaries, movies and so on, in the case of a contemporary film, other ‘low-brow’ sources can be utilised. For example, social networks, within which it is sometimes possible to snoop on the daily lives of people who are part of the world that you have to create for the film.

DDM) During this process of sociological analysis what has surprised or moved you the most?

VF) I would say that the most striking discovery has been how in Naples, and in many other place although with diverse undertones, there is a certain attention and care given to the way people present their image to others. And this attention is reflected through clothing and objects, or more commonly ownership and the desire to make an appearance.
In Gomorra most of this attention revolves around fashion, for example, the bosses are always incredibly contemporary, with perfect hair and manicured hands; this attention to elegant detail is juxtaposed with the surrounding environment. We can consider here, the astonishing but often crumbling and decaying architecture, like the Vele di Scampia – a large urban housing project that’s building shape resembles a sail, and many other neighbourhood’s that have an incredibly strong appeal.
It was interesting for me to talk about Genny, Imma, Ciro and Conte, and the contrast between the extreme care they take of themselves and their physical appearance, and their capacity to live in daily contact with violence and destruction.

DDM) The customs and traditions of Naples are often very different from the rest of Italy. Something that I find intriguing is the way people have been stylistically acclimated and validated. Is this a problem for your work or a source of inspiration?

VF) It’s definitely a source. Naples is wonderful because it constantly amazes, and does so by proudly glaring at you in the eyes. Never lower your gaze. In Naples, as with few other places in Italy, the people are not afraid to dare and be bold. And if this is often simplistically perceived as excessive or bad taste, more often in reality, it’s only a side of the great aesthetic creativity of this city.
Precisely for this reason, if I have to be one hundred precent honest, sometimes I had to aesthetically “simplify” characters from those that I saw around me. Because reality sometimes outdoes fiction. And with an international series like Gomorra, this excess that reality showed me, was sometimes ‘cleaned up’ in order not to seem fake to an international audience.

EG) How did you document this? For example I am picturing the scenes shot inside the prisons.

VF) I am a huge fan of documentaries. Often I much prefer these, as they are an inexhaustible and important resource for me, a way to have a look at the real world. In cases such as the prison story, however, in addition to these resources it is necessary to hire consultants. People who live within certain realms and through the knowledge of the rules that apply within them, they will help you to be very precise about what characters are permitted to wear.
An error in the representation of a uniform or of an object or piece of clothing staged in a prison would be unforgivable. Especially for our filmmakers: Stefano Sollima, Claudio Cupellini, Francesca Comencini – directors that continually demand from their collaborators a strong knowledge of the reality represented.

EG) The diversity of social classes is also reflected in the diversity of the costumes. How do you go from tracksuit and sneakers to tailored suits?

VF) The beauty of the work of a costume designer, means we have to navigate these distances. We have a wonderful opportunity to represent the beautiful and the ugly, what is sophisticated and what is kitsch.
Personally, I am much more attracted to what is “crooked” and what is distasteful. Whether that is a tracksuit or clothing that is too tight and highlights flaws rather than wealth, good taste and perfection. And I am much more attracted to the filmic work where I’m allowed and required to represent this, rather then just making actors look elegant and beautiful. That is why I do costume and not fashion.

EG) In the first season we have seen an evolution in Genny. How did the costuming choices change to reflect this?

VF) The change of Genny that was required was so radical that it was almost easier to achieve this than with other characters. The first thing to take into consideration was the tremendous work that the actor had to do on his body in order to slim down. Thus the costume had to reflect a man who had been dealing with very strong violence, yet had somehow become more of a man, less frivolous, more cynical.
The haircut choice was inspired by research on narcos Hondureni, for which I found points of contact with the fashion that exists in Naples, and that often takes its cue from the haircuts of famous football players. From this research Genny’s crest came to light.

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EG) Have you ever kept the outfit of an actor, and by that I mean one that they wear off set? Or a personal accessory? I can’t seem to get out of mind the image of Salvatore Conte’s e-cigarette.

VF) No, not any of the protagonists. There are some small roles, in which actors have brought their custom look to the costume fittings like a gift. And I tried to stick to their personal style as closely as possible. There is the world of representations, real and incredible people who arrive on set with suitcases full of their clothes, for which you take care of their style, and every day they teach you something new about the fashion of Naples that you would not have otherwise ever discovered.
But the protagonists of Gomorra – Marco, Salvatore and Mariapia, when they arrived for the first time for their costume fittings… they had sweet faces, wore simple or sophisticated clothing; they had very long hair and perfect smiles. They are fantastic actors, and have studied and suffered to become what they were not and are not. And I just tried to support this aesthetically, the research of their characters, and to create looks that were true to their characters styles and different from them as people.
Maybe I should have taken a Polaroid of each of them before the transformation began.

EG) Will the next season see an evolution in the costuming of characters? Any insights?

VF) Can I not answer that question? It’s best to examine the evolution of characters on the screen – to see the actors performing, to analyse the direction and the development of the plot instead of reading it here…