Synopsis: A gang of teenage boys stalk the streets of Naples armed with hand guns and AK-47s to do their mob bosses’ bidding.
Stars: Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea, Renato Carpentieri
Director: Claudio Giovannesi
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: When I heard a movie called Piranhas was making the rounds of the festival circuit and getting accolades, my Spidey-senses started tingling. A horror movie about killer fish had received a prestigious roll out? Of course, doing my homework like every critic should clarified the film was less about razor-toothed creatures from the deep and was more in line with the growing slate of Italian-produced films centering on mafia influence and mob families. So, my dreams of monster movies making a run for Oscar gold would have to wait. Still, these youngsters are every bit as dangerous as those pesky toe nibblers.
Originally titled the far more docile and innocuous La paranza dei bambini (The parade of children) adapted by author Roberto Saviano from his source novel “The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples”, for distribution outside of Italy the film was renamed Piranhas and I can see the rationale behind it. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, piranhas aren’t usually a danger to humans unless they are in a stressful situation. By nature a timid fish, they most often gather in a school to fend off their predators when they come under attack. The boys that form the central “school” of piranhas in this film are from poor families in a section of Naples, Italy that was once prosperous but has now fallen on hard times. These families are barely scraping by and when the young teens see an opportunity to fight back against the mafia thugs gleaning wages from the hard-working townspeople, they gather to attack. Leading the charge is Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) a 15 year old living with his single mom and younger brother who has a chance meeting with Agostino, the nephew of a former crime boss that was well respected in their infamous neighborhood, the Rione Sanità.
Teaming up with Agostino as well as his own impressionable friends that are in search of a leader and needing a purpose, they start off small by dealing drugs for a local mob boss before going across town and graduating to working with firearms. When Nicola sees they are becoming exactly like the men that have oppressed their families for so many years, he takes steps to counter their burgeoning violent acts by cleaning up his own neighborhood and making a better life for those around him. A new relationship with a girl from a rival town plays out like a West Side Story narrative without the song and dance act and only spells more trouble as loyalties change and crime begins to spin out of control. What Nicola thought was an improvement might actually be another wave of crime he helped usher in.
There’s a lot of familiarity to be felt when watching Piranhas. We’ve seen this story countless times, youth being exploited by experience and falling prey to the excesses that come with quick success. Kids that start off the movie barely getting enough money to go out for the evening and formerly shoplifting for new clothes can now walk into these same stores with wads of cash and buy anything they want. The adrenaline that comes with their authority, as expected, begins to go to their heads and the limits of how far their influence reaches starts to be tested with increasingly dangerous results. The changes over the course of the film are subtle, but drastic and ultimately devastating.
The movie may remind astute viewers of 2008’s similarly themed Gomorrah and for good reason. It’s based on the non-fiction book that was written by the same author that penned Piranhas. While both films deal with the Camorra (a crime-syndicate operating in Naples), Gomorrah’s narrative was more sprawling than the one taken up here. By honing in on this small group, there’s more room to get to know them, if not individually, than with some familiarity. Even if director Claudio Giovannesi doesn’t bring much in the way of style to the film, that’s not to say it isn’t an involving experience. There’s a raw energy to the performances (many of the actors are novices) and the way he follows them through their routines gives the movie a voyeuristic feel…like we’re always watching over their shoulders and just as much at risk as they are.
The threads of the movie get a bit tangled as we near the end with some routine plot twists that at this point are, I guess, standard for any mob movie. What I appreciated about the film most was its way of reserving dialogue for only important information but letting the majority of the movie speak by the actions of the actors. A lot happens in the final few minutes of the movie and it’s largely dialogue free – yet what’s happening is as clear as if someone was narrating it for us. These films can’t ever be classified as “pleasant” to watch but the rough edges of the cast lend authenticity to the action that makes it a compelling piece to sit through.