Directed by Claudio Giovannesi
Written by Claudio Giovannesi, Roberto Saviano, & Maurizio Braucci based on the novel by Roberto Savino (who also wrote the novel and co-wrote the screenplay for Gomorrah)
Starring: Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea and Mattia Piano Del Balzo
MPAA rating: Not Rated, but featuring plenty of juvenile mafioso violence
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
by Ian Hrabe
Piranhas opens with two rival gangs of teenagers attempting to steal a Christmas tree. It’s an act of mindless petty theft, but when one gang drives off the other it becomes a euphoric act of dominance. The gang celebrates this victory by lighting a huge bonfire in a vacant lot in their low-income Naples neighborhood. They smear paint on their faces and chant as if they are conducting a pagan ritual. In a sense they are. Considering where the film heads from here, it serves as this gang’s baptism into the city’s criminal underworld.
The gang’s baby-faced leader Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) longs to live the glamorous lifestyle of the mafiosos who run his neighborhood. In an early scene Nicola and his gang are seen fawning over expensive shirts and sneakers in a high-end streetwear shop before being run off by the store’s owner. The group’s humble beginnings in the world of crime illustrate just how out of their depth they are. When they hold up a jewelry store to steal some Rolexes, they are immediately caught and met with reprisal from the local mob family in power (hey, at least the protection money the jewelry store owner was paying paid off). This lands the group a gig slinging drugs for the family.
When the local mob bosses are arrested in a raid by the polizia, a power vacuum is created and Nicola and his posse of scooter-riding hoodrats seize the opportunity to take over their neighborhood for themselves. A local mobster under house arrest lends the boys some AK-47s, Uzis, and pistols. The sight of these baby-faced hooligans wielding such devastating firepower is a terrifying sight, but Nicola sees himself as a Robin Hood of sorts. A benevolent mafioso who won’t take protection money from the local shops and who will make a better life for his family and his new girlfriend.
Things turn out pretty much how you would expect them to, and that is Piranhas main issue: It’s effectively a paint-by-numbers mafia movie. That it focuses on teenagers instead of grizzled grown-ups adds an interesting wrinkle, but the story is Piranhas least compelling feature. There’s a girlfriend subplot that exists solely to give Nicola some humanity, but it falls flat because the girlfriend Letizia (Viviana Aprea) is scarcely developed and relegated to being a prop. There’s a little brother who wants to follow his brother into a life of crime. There’s Lord of the Flies-esque infighting for control amongst the gang. You’ve seen it before, you’ll see it again, but there are enough positive elements at work that round this into a solid film.
Director Claudio Giovannessi and cinematographer Daniele Ciprì elevate the ho-hum script with solid and gritty filmmaking that puts Francesco Di Napoli front and center. Considering that this is Di Napoli’s first role, his work here is nothing short of a triumph. It’s a bold move letting an unknown teenager carry your film, and it absolutely paid off here. There’s something about Di Napoli’s eyes that makes him look perpetually broken, which reinforces the theme that these kids never stood a chance. Their neighborhood is set up to funnel these kids into the mafia and to glamorize a life of violence and crime. They take selfies holding guns and in a particularly inspired scene, look up how to operate a newly acquired AK-47 on YouTube. Even when they have a little bit of power, they’re always botching their criminal activities (which you would expect from a bunch of 110 pound 15-year-olds). “Wow, we’re awesome,” one of the juvenile gangsters says as the group piles onto a sectional passing around a stolen pistol. They are play-acting as adults, but there is nothing playful about the violent world they have entered.
This is not a story about salvation. It’s not about a good kid falling in with a bad crowd and coming out the other side with some hard earned wisdom. This is a movie about an unbroken circle of violence that perpetuates itself in low-income neighborhoods around the world. Despite its flaws, Piranhas is worth a look for its excellent use of young talent.