By James Mackenzie
ROME (Reuters) - Crime dramas often strive for gritty realism but few have had as timely an echo in the real world as the Italian TV series "Gomorra", inspired by Roberto Saviano's bestselling 2006 account of the Naples underworld.
The show, which ended its first run on Tuesday night, recalls U.S. series like "The Wire" or "The Sopranos" in its unrelenting portrait of violence, corruption and drugs in the crumbling high-rise tenements around Naples.
Made by News Corp's Italian pay-TV unit Sky Italia, it has attracted some of the highest ratings in the station's history and has been sold in more than 50 countries including Britain and the United States, profiting from the recent boom in big-budget TV series like "Game of Thrones" or "House of Cards".
Based loosely on a war between rival factions of the Camorra, the Naples mafia, in the suburb of Scampia 10 years ago, it shows the area as a lawless zone of killers, drug dealers and corrupt local politicians.
Almost as soon as it began showing, Antonio Iovine, a former Camorra boss turned police witness, provided depressing testimony of the power of organized crime in Naples in a real-life trial.
"There was money for everyone in a system that was completely corrupt," Iovine, who said he had committed so many murders he could not remember them all, told investigators as he described an elaborate shadow economy of bribes and protection money controlled by Camorra gunmen.
Andrea Scrosati, the Sky Italia executive in charge of programming, said the series, made by the team responsible for the successful Italian series "Romanzo Criminale", based on the 1970s Rome underworld, needed to be as realistic as it could be to work.
"It wouldn't have been possible to make it any other way," he said.
Saviano's "Gomorra" (a play on the name of the biblical city of sin and the Camorra) has already been filmed by director Matteo Garrone, whose stripped-down version of the book was shown at the Cannes film festival in 2008. But apart from the title, the series is not linked to the film.
The series was shot mainly in the Naples periphery and production involved long negotiations with local community activists but, the producers insist, no dealings with the local mafia.
Far from the fading baroque splendor of central Naples, the action takes place on anonymous motorways, bits of urban wasteland and the Vele di Scampia, ("The sails of Scampia") a decaying 1960s housing project long synonymous with the Camorra.
The mainly unknown cast of local actors deliver the dialogue almost entirely in a thick Naples dialect which many other Italians struggle to understand and which prompted the broadcaster to offer subtitles in standard Italian.
"That was a real dilemma," Scrosati said. "We had big discussions about that. As a broadcaster, we were worried about it but the writers said it was impossible without it, and they were right."
Even before being broadcast, the series was accused of glamorizing the Camorra, making a show out of real suffering and stereotyping an entire zone.
Some local activists say the fact that the series, while set in the present, is based on the events of a decade ago, hides a more complex reality in which the gangs have changed and increasingly moved away from Scampia into other areas.
The overall success of the program however has already led to a second series, building on a recent wave of success for Italian film - following others such as Paolo Sorrentino's Oscar-winning "The Great Beauty" or Alice Rohrwacher's "The Wonders", which won second prize at Cannes this year.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Andrew Roche)