Writers: Claudio Giovannesi, Roberto Saviano and Maurizio Braucci
Director: Claudio Giovannesi
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Like a cross between The Godfather and Quadrophenia, Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas certainly lives up to its name as it follows the lives of Neapolitan teenagers attracted by the glamour of crime. Tattooed and streetwise, these boys bite, and soon, like the Amazonian fish, they develop a taste for blood.
15-year-old Nicola witnesses his mother, the owner of a dry-cleaning business, hand over protection money to two mobsters who currently control this corner of Naples. Around the same time he befriends two brothers, part of a rival gang, and is overwhelmed with the gaudy gold mirrors and the flashy solid gold lions that have been bought with the profits of crime. Nicola wants possessions like these, and so sets up a gang of his own.
Gliding down Naples’ narrow streets on scooters, Nicola and his friends look like a modern day version of the British Mods from the early 1960s. The Vespas and Lambrettas may look quaint, but here, as they form tight shoals, they menace and terrorise. And like the Mods, this gang takes pride in its appearance. The boys want the right labels and the right trainers to wear at the swankiest of nightclubs. They pose and pout in front of each other, checking their hair and their muscles.
Despite the camaraderie between the boys, Giovannesi refreshingly keeps the homoeroticism down to a low level hum, only swelling up on the close-ups of Nicola, played by newcomer Francesco Di Napoli who inhabits his role effortlessly. Napoli gives little away, but his dark eyes and sunken cheeks convince whether he’s got a gun in his hand or whether he’s flirting with his girlfriend. With no backstory – we have no idea where Nicola’s father is, or why he isn’t at school – Napoli presents Nicola as an intriguing cypher, and copes well when the narrative wants to make him either Robin Hood or Shakespeare’s Romeo.
Viviana Aprea ensures that Nicola’s girlfriend Letizia seems real too. Encouraged by her father to enter a sexy beauty pageant at the age of 16, Letizia has grown up too soon. Aprea is wide-eyed, and gives Letizia the desperation of wanting to be an adult that only a teenager can have. Nicola seduces her with consumerism and the social status that possessions can bring. Even Nicola’s mother (Valentina Vannino) doesn’t question where the money is coming from to buy her new furniture. The hug she gives her son could be one of despair or one of gratitude.
This objective stance taken by Giovannesi powers Piranhas, and the result is a film caught between the genres of gangster and coming-of-age. Only at the end does the film lose its nerve, and suddenly we see Naples through a different pair of eyes. It’s an exciting switch, but it pulls the viewer too quickly out of the Nicola’s world to a place where morals are ushered in and consequences pondered.
Piranhas, entitled La Paranza del Bambini in the original Italian, is based on a novel by Roberto Saviano, whose book Gomorrah was turned into a successful film in 2008. Piranhas seems certain to repeat that success and has already done well at the Berlin Film Festival, picking up a Silver Bear for the screenplay, and it should continue to succeed as it opens in New York this August and hopefully the UK this autumn.
Despite the guns, Naples looks gorgeous and Daniele Cipri’s clean and bright cinematography adds an advertising sheen to Piranhas. It seems apt for a film about consumerism and the drive that compels us to possess and impress.
Released Autumn 2019 | Image: contributed