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ZeroZeroZero is available to watch on Sky Atlantic.

Propulsive, ambitious and more than a little addictive, ZeroZeroZero uses the framework of a global drug deal gone wrong to explore the motivations and betrayals of those who grease the wheels of this sprawling black market machine.

Adapted from the nonfiction book by the Italian investigative journalist and author Roberto Saviano, this eight-episode series – which was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 and is now streaming on Sky Atlantic in the UK, Amazon in the US and a wealth of platforms across multiple countries – is a show that demands its viewers pay attention as it hops around in both geography (dialogue is in six languages, with subtitles moving as quickly as the action) and chronology. But those who invest will be rewarded with intelligent, compelling drama of the highest calibre.

Saviano also wrote Gomorrah (2006), about Neapolitan mob syndicates, which was turned into a film in 2008 and a TV series in 2014 – the latter developed by the Italian production company Cattleya, which is also behind ZeroZeroZero. The shows share some key creative talent (including Leonardo Fasoli and Stefano Sollima, who are credited as co-creators with Mauricio Katz) and an approach that favours gritty realism over mobster glamour. But whereas Gomorrah focused tightly on the underbelly of life in Naples, ZeroZeroZero expands those horizons to take in the impact of organised crime across three continents.

Gabriel Byrne as Edward Lynwood in ZeroZeroZero (2019)

The story weaves three main threads. In New Orleans, the shipping magnate Edward Lynwood (Gabriel Byrne) and his kids Emma (Andrea Riseborough) and Chris (Dane DeHaan) use the family freight business as a cover for brokering billion-dollar drug deals and shipping the merchandise across the world – in this case, hidden in thousands of jars of jalapeño peppers by the crew of notorious Mexican suppliers Enrique and Jacinto Leyra (Victor Huggo Martin and Flavio Medina).

The buyer is Don Minu La Piana (Adriano Chiaramida), a boss of Italy’s prominent ’Ndrangheta crime syndicate. Needless to say, the stakes are already sky-high before the shipment is unexpectedly rerouted to Africa; with delays causing tensions to rise to fever pitch, Emma and Chris must risk their lives to ensure the merchandise reaches Italy.

But that’s just the tip of the narrative iceberg. While ZeroZeroZero is concerned with international crime, its real interests are far more intimate: the strength of loyalty, both familial and financial, and how far those bonds can be stretched before they snap. Both the American Lynwoods and the Italian La Pianas are bound by blood, with hereditary allegiances that should strengthen and smooth business alliances. In practice, though, simmering personal resentments constantly undermine proceedings.

Adriano Chiaramida as Don Minu and Giuseppe De Domenico as Stefano in ZeroZeroZero

This is most viscerally realised in Italy, where Don Minu’s grandson Stefano (Giuseppe De Domenico) has dreams of ruling the roost and manoeuvres to oust his ageing grandfather and install himself as head of the family. Stefano’s attempts to thwart the drug deal and place the blame on Don Minu have dramatic consequences, for himself and his gung-ho associates and, half a world away, for others whose lives depend on the outcome of the deal.

That includes Emma and Chris, who find themselves battling their way through Senegal with the drugs in a pair of trucks after Stefano’s double-crossing tactics lead to their ship being impounded and the police set on their tail.

This segment is perhaps the least convincing, as the pair do battle with the Taliban and flee across the desert to Morocco, but the dynamic between the two siblings is the point of interest. Chris suffers from Huntington’s disease – their mother’s painful death from the condition has left deep scars on her children – and an increasingly stressed Emma vacillates between trying to protect him and wanting to throw him into the deep end. With Chris desperate to prove he deserves a seat at the table he, much like Stefano, makes ostentatious decisions that will have a far-reaching impact.

Harold Torres as Manuel in ZeroZeroZero

The most fascinating part of the story takes place in Mexico, where we are thrust into a society that literally runs on drugs. Everyone is buying, selling or using, and crime bosses like the Leyras jostle violently for position. Our guide here is Manuel (Harold Torres), a special forces soldier who is ostensibly fighting to take down the narcos but in reality is on the Leyras’ payroll. In later episodes, Manuel and his cohorts train a huge army of boys to wipe out the Leyras’s competition; the suggestion is that, for these young men, clinging to the relative safety of this makeshift community is better than taking their chances alone on the streets.

In a show powered by sterling performances across the board – a tightly coiled Riseborough and De Domenico as an increasingly duplicitous Stefano are particularly impressive – Torres stands out. In his portrayal, Manuel is not a cold-blooded monster; although he is driven by a desire for power, it is clear that he has been raised in an environment where you have to kill or be killed. He is also deeply conflicted, (mis)guided by his devout faith and drawn to the pregnant partner of a fellow soldier in whose death he was complicit. While Manuel never wavers when it comes to the unsavoury elements of his job and is feared by the men, who call him ‘vampiro’, there is a soul-deep sadness behind his eyes.

The directors – the Italian Stefano Sollima (the TV Gomorrah, and the thematically similar Sicario: Day of the Soldado, 2018), Danish Janus Metz (Borg vs McEnroe, 2017) and Argentinian Pablo Trapero (The Clan, 2014) – and multiple writers lean fully into the dark morality of this lifestyle, confronting the viewer with horrors at every turn.

This is not the jetsetting mayhem of cocaine-fuelled parties; it’s a world in which disloyal mobsters are fed to rabid pigs, young boys are trained to kill and innocent people lose their lives in brutal displays of dominance. Flashbacks, flagged by a sudden shift into slow-motion, turn back time in moments or days, skewing and redrawing events from different points of view and highlighting the fact that desperate or disloyal actions are, usually, a fight for survival. There is no time to pick a side, no space to draw breath. Everything is in the moment.

Dane DeHaan as Chris in ZeroZeroZero

Among the blood and barbarity, the cinematographers turn in some extraordinary work, finding surprising beauty amid the chaos. (Paolo Carnera shot five episodes, two of them with segments by Vittorio Omodei Zorini; Romain Lacourbas shot the remaining three.) Wide shots capture the stunning expanses of the Italian countryside, the colourful warrens of Mexico’s poorest neighbourhoods. A sequence in which a handheld camera stays fixed in closeup on DeHaan’s shocked and bloodied face, moving woozily with him in the aftermath of an explosion, exemplifies the series’ textured, immersive camerawork. Given the number of different directors and DPs, the tonal harmony is impressive; while each location  has its own distinct look and feel, the series has a cohesive visual and dramatic identity.

A key element in that cohesiveness is the masterful soundscape, anchored by an exceptional score by the Scottish rock band Mogwai, which combines frantic chords, soaring guitars and spaghetti western-inspired strings with disorienting reverb to resonate with the life-and-death events happening on screen. The sound design by Luca Anzellotti (who also worked on the Gomorrah series) is equally fine-tuned: at times dialogue is overwhelmed by the whirr of a helicopter, the scatter blast of gunfire; at others we are plunged into an echoing vacuum when Chris removes his hearing aids, or thrust into the passionate sermon Manuel is listening to on his headphones.

It all combines to create a claustrophobic, explosive environment by which we, like those who find themselves trapped within it, are utterly absorbed.

Sight & Sound May 2021

In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.

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