Film Review: PIRANHAS (2019) DIR. CLAUDIO GIOVANESI
Both the translation of title of this film and its location in the gang-ridden streets of Naples suggest a violence-centric film. One of the opening scenes of a mob of young males, stripped to the waist, bodies streaked with angry smears of paint, drinking and shouting as they feed a bonfire in the courtyard of an apartment building, hurling pieces of furniture, bicycles and whatever else is available into the fire, certainly fuels that expectation. Mercifully and surprisingly, that is not what is on order. The aprés bonfire takes place in a men’s room where the young men, who are actually young teenagers, are cleaning themselves up, grooming each other and preening in the mirror in age-appropriate adolescent behavior. As they swagger out, they do not look particularly menacing or dangerous. As it turns out, they are not as intimidating as their behavior suggests. They had a legitimate grievance against the gang that was controlling their turf. In the lawless streets of Naples, they were voicing their disapproval. Theirs is not malicious or cruel misbehavior. They are, in fact, touchingly vulnerable.
Based on Roberto Saviano’s 2016 novel La Parenza dei Bambini, (The Children’s Gang), a fictional account based on actual experiences of Neapolitan teenage gang members. Saviano, a journalist and author, whose 2006 exposé Gamorrah about the Neapolitan mafia, which became a successful television series, has necessitated police protection for Saviano ever since. The leader of this gang of 15-year-old boys is Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli), who has the chiseled features and irresistible smile of the young Tom Cruise. His single mother has her own dry cleaning business. She pays protection money every month along with all of the other businesses in the Sanità district to the local mob leader. Nicola feels guilty taking money from his mom, who works hard to support him and his 8-year-old brother. After a botched jewelry robbery, he and his pals get off with a reprimand from the boss. Nicola, who does not lack ingenuity and chutzpah, disarms the boss by asking him for a job selling weed to the students in the district. When he gets the job, it includes his gang of energetic recruits who are soon rolling in cash. Predictably, it goes to their heads and they decide to take matters into their own hands
and try to take over the gang. As their audacity ramps up to meet their aspirations, guns are acquired and things rapidly get seriously grown-up and riskier. To be fair, they are much more benign than the previous bosses, not extorting protection money from the local vendors. But, their tenuous hold on control is soon challenged and there are betrayals and all manner of complications, none of which bode well.
The multiple story lines, including a doomed love affair between Nicola and the beautiful Letizia (Viviana Aprea) make it clear that the cycle of gang violence, turf wars and general lawlessness will continue to engender gangsterism among the underprivileged, unsupervised youth with very few alternative options and access to guns. The tragic occurrences which bring the story to its imminent end are so sad and signify the end of innocence, and the cycle repeating itself endlessly. The hand held camera work captures the gritty energy of the city and the gang of kids as they swarm around on their scooters trying out different versions of the mini-mobsters they are emulating. All of the bosses are not equally terrible and the kids seem to have standards for their allegiances. I found it to be a fairly nuanced and empathetic look at adolescence in a challenging environment. The mostly non-professional actors are appealing and believable.