“I was never any good at football.”
So says 15-year-old Nico (Francesco Di Napoli), when ageing Camorra boss, Don Vittorio (Renato Carpentieri) asks him why he doesn’t try to get rich through the ‘beautiful game,’ rather than the very ugly game of organised crime.
In 2008, Roberto Saviano’s fact-based book on the Neapolitan mafia (Camorra), Gomorrah, was adapted into a successful film, directed by Matteo Garrone.
Now, Claudio Giovannesi has adapted and directed another of Saviano’s books, once more with the author collaborating on the screenplay.
The English title, Piranhas, can’t really capture the sense of the original Italian, La Paranza dei Bambini. Paranza is a local speciality – a dish of mixed small fish, fried. The term, however, is also applied to child gangs exploited by Camorra families.
Young Nicola (Nico) is the lead figure in a local kids’ gang. Their rivals, the Quartieri gang live in an adjacent district. Nico’s mother runs a dry-cleaning business and, like others in her area, pays “protection” money to the local gangsters.
Nico befriends the Striano brothers, Agostino (Pasquale Marotta) and Limone (Carmine Pizzo). They are the sons of a former boss (now disgraced and labelled a grass). Their uncle (their father’s righthand man) is dead. The Strianos, however, still possess enough of their family’s ill-gotten gains to impress Nico’s poverty-stricken gang.
Although an immediate bond is formed between Nico and Agostino, it is soon fractured when Nico goes to work for the Camorra boss who replaced Striano senior. Soon, Nico and his mates are selling dope to students, collecting “payments” from market stallholders, and flashing the cash on designer goods.
Our Romeo uses the money to impress his Juliet – Letizia (Viviana Aprea). Though this is not quite Montagues and Capulets, Letizia’s father runs a restaurant on the home turf of the Quartieris.
Nico has just managed to persuade his boss, Lino Samataro (Aniello Arena) to stop taking protection money from his mum, when the boss is arrested at a family wedding. Seeing an opportunity, the ambitious Nico suggests to Agostino that they should chase out the few remaining members of Samataro’s gang (who are outsiders, anyway) and run their district themselves.The boys soon realise that one gun does not a Camorra family make.
Nico pays a call on Don Vittorio – ageing and effectively under house arrest. It’s not clear why Don Vittorio reverses his original view that the notion of 15-year-olds running the decrepit back streets of Naples is laughable, but change it he does. Nico (and his mates) get all the guns they can handle – there’s a highly plausible scene of the boys trying out their new “toys” on a rooftop, with a firework display for cover.
Having fond memories of the generosity of the Striano gang, Nico strives to mimic him – buying new shirts for his little brother’s football team, telling business and stall holders that there will be no more extortion. He revels in his moment in the sun – neighbours shout a cheery ‘Buongiorno!’ from the square below as he takes his morning coffee.
There are silly, boyish moments that also ring true: Nico’s gang taunt their (more grown-up) rivals at a local nightclub; as thanks for the weapons, Nico takes Don Vittorio an enormous TV set so they can play video games together.
Dark clouds begin to gather. It becomes dangerous for Nico to visit Letizia now that some of the younger Quartieri gang also have weapons. When she refuses to leave her father to come and live with Nico, they part. Can Romeo survive without his Juliet?
The revelation that the younger Striano brother, Limone, has reverted to extorting the storekeepers causes an unbreachable rift between Nico and Agostino (it’s one of the screenplay’s failings not to realise that this should be a tale of Bassanio and Antonio, as much as Romeo and Juliet).
Then, much-loved little brother, Cristian (Luca Nacario) finds the cache of weapons hidden on the roof…
While not the ground-breaking insight into Camorra life that Gomorrah seemed to present, Piranhas is a rewarding (if rarely engrossing) experience. The young actors are faultless and the film is packed with outstanding cinematographic moments – Daniele Cipri exploiting the decadent wonders of back street Naples, and the photogenic young cast, to memorable effect. The closing “tableau vivant” is perhaps the highlight of the entire film (and a lesson in narrative restraint).★ ★ ★ ★
Digital Download Release Date: 13th July
Director: Claudio Giovannesi
Cast: Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea, Mattia Piano Del Balzo, Ciro Vecchione, Ciro Pellechia
Distributor: Blue Finch Film Releasing
Digital Platforms: iTunes, Amazon, Sky, Virgin, Google Play & Chili
Runtime: 105 Minutes