“PIRAHNAS” [“La paranza dei bambini”]
Male Teen Gangs in Naples, Italy
Director Claudio Giovannesi’s controversial Italian crime drama “Piranhas” is the story of 15-year-old Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) who is head of a small gang of teenage boys on motorbikes through the streets of Naples armed with guns and weapons. They are the new Mafia and plan to take over the local mob bosses’ territory. Only boys, they are on a get-rich-quick, power-crazy kick to become the new bosses of Naples— they steal, intimidate, drug-deal and kill as they go.
The boys are exceptionally close and the film explores the complex theme of friendship between boys. But Nicola also has a pretty girlfriend, Letizia (Viviana Aprea), daughter of a restaurant owner in another part of town that is ruled by another gang.
Piranhas is based on fact, but it is not a true story and ends with an open end but this expected from the start. It is a visceral and exciting film. We are along with the boy mob bosses for their thrill ride, on the road with them, following them along corridors and through rooms.
Di Napoli looks like a model and has a killer smile but when he’s got a gun in his hand or starts to get mad, he looks crazy and becomes Nicola. He carries the film just like his character holds the gang together. We see the streets of Naples in the film— this is Italy at its most raw. The film is fiction but it’s based on real street experiences and chronicles the criminal activity of a naïve group of 15-year-old friends. There’s a grimly comic aspect to the story about a group of teen miscreants who take over organized crime in Naples’s Rione Sanità neighborhood. As Nico and his friends cruise through the narrow streets of the historic Italian city on diminutive gas-powered scooters, we get a sense of dissonance and underlines its point that organized crime essentially operates at the emotional and intellectual level of a teenager.
Nico is an enterprising small-time criminal heading a rabble of similarly aged friends who burglarize Rolex shops and vandalize public Christmas trees as he routs out his neighborhood’s branch of the Neapolitan mafia. After he observes his mother (Valentina Vannino), who runs a laundromat, struggling to make the protection payments extorted by the local hoods, he deliberately befriends the slightly older Agostino (Pasquale Marotta), whom the mob considers a pariah because his father is collaborating with the Italian police. The two hatch a plan to displace the current don despite the fact that Nico and his friends are currently working for him, handily stealing a pistol from a local cop and procuring more guns from rival gang leader Don Vittorio (Renato Carpentieri).
Throughout, we’re reminded that Nico is still a child, living at home with his mother and his younger brother, Cristian (Luca Nacarlo). Nico’s plans, executed with about as much planning as one would expect of a teenage boy who still depends on his mother for breakfast, don’t go exactly as expected, and one anticipates with each successive crisis that Nico and his friends are done for. The director withholds any simple moral catharsis, in which the boys’ rash decisions would result in irreversible consequences. At least at first, the boys are rewarded for their wanton violence, and now flush with cash, Nico can impress the relatively innocent Letizia with lavish gifts, pulling her into the burgeoning quagmire he’s created. Nico exists to show the audience how the incomplete socialization of teenage boys results in a strange mixture of callousness and extreme sensitivity—the manner of infantile sociopathy that is so suited to a mafia don.
As I said, the film doesn’t end with the profound impact one suspects it’s aiming for. As the net of rival gangs and resentful, ousted mobsters close in on Nico and his friends, the story gets predictable. Despite the initial shock of witnessing these young people put themselves in such a dangerous position feels a bit safe. The boys’ future looks set from the start yet the screenplay struggles to rise above the level of a sociological study into the realm of exciting cinema.