'Piranhas' ('La paranza dei bambini'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
A sociological study much tamer than 'Gomorrah.'

Director Claudio Giovannesi ('Fiore') brings Roberto Saviano’s novel about teen gangs in Naples to the big screen.

In Naples, the plague of “baby gangs” is old news. Violent kids from the slums as young as ten go cruising for fights and taunt the police, knowing they’re too young to be arrested. They presumably graduate to become teenage “paranza,” mob slang for an armed group in the service of the Camorra.

Piranhas (La paranza dei bambini), directed by Claudio Giovannesi, charts the descent into organized crime of a naïve group of 15-year-old pals led by the inexperienced but cocksure Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli). Behind his clean-cut face, neat haircut and designer clothes lies a dangerously small brain. Imagining himself as the savior of the Sanità neighborhood where he lives with his mom and little brother, he goes from dealing marijuana for one local gang to bartering for guns, rifles and automatic weapons with another and finally, absurdly, declares war on all those left standing for the crown of top dog.

The boys’ future looks tightly sealed from the start, and the uninspired acting and directing brings little emotion to the table in this Berlin competition entry. Giovannesi, whose juvenile delinquent drama Fiore premiered in Cannes' Directors Fortnight a few years ago and who more relevantly directed several episodes of the TV series Gomorrah for Italian TV, has already attracted much media attention at home for his theme of lost young lives. But the screenplay struggles to rise above the level of a sociological study into the realm of exciting cinema.  

It’s hard to read Piranhas without referring to its noble predecessor Gomorrah. A decade after Roberto Saviano’s ground-breaking novel was violently transposed to the screen by Matteo Garrone, seeding the popular TV crime drama, Saviano returns to the theme of the contemporary Camorra in the novel-to-film Piranhas. Co-written by Giovannesi, Saviano and Maurizio Braucci (the last two also worked on the screenplay of Gomorrah, so there is a lot of crossover), this tale of teenage gangs is badly in need of stronger visuals and pacing. The downward spiral Nicola so cheerfully enters is a predictable trap, and the wolves he meets along his way — the city's reigning bosses, many of whom have been declawed by the police — are a lot less frightening than the old Godfather crew and seem positively paternal compared to Gomorrah’s head-twisting predators.

In fact, most of the expected violence takes place offscreen and after the story ends, making the film more suitable for TV audiences. In an oddly unspectacular opener, Nicola and his buddies run off another band of boys their age to steal a huge Christmas tree from a shopping mall. Painting their faces with war paint like small children, they burn it to whoops of joys.

On their way to a disco on their scooters, the gang comes upon two girls and politely gives them a lift. The pretty Letizia (Viviana Aprea) will become Nicola’s love interest. She is from the rival Spanish Quarters neighborhood, and a feeble West Side Story conflict is proposed but never developed. Their first date at the opera at San Carlo is a nice invention that shows them as normal kids. A discreetly shot sex scene follows naturally.

Nicola is curious about Agostino (Paquale Marotta), a boy from the Striano clan whose family ruled Sanità until his eccentric uncle Tonino was killed and his father turned state’s evidence. Now the traitorous family is despised and has lost all its power and prestige. As Nicola ogles the Striano mansion, a kitsch-fest of gold-plated furnishings and paintings, you can see a burning desire for excess being born on his face. But where to get the money?

His bold appeal to the local boss gets him and his gang a job peddling dope to college students. They celebrate their initiation with their first lines of coke. At a Camorra wedding, which is much less flamboyant that it should be, a police crack-down decimates the clan. Seizing the day, Nicola visits Don Vittorio under house arrest (played as a crotchety oldster by veteran actor Renato Carpentieri) and proposes they swap his manpower for the Don’s guns. This is how the young gang gets its hands on an arsenal of lethal weapons, which they practice shooting on the rooftops.

Far from being depicted as vicious, drug-crazed hot-heads, the gang is characterized as decidedly childlike and dim-witted. Nicola persuades Agostino, heir of the Striano clan, to join him in a comically inept take-over bid against the old bosses. How he pulls through scrape after scrape, only the screenwriters know. Though Nicola does manage to become popular for a time, it’s not clear whether anyone really takes him seriously when he tells them there’s no more need to pay weekly protection money to the mob. There’s always someone waiting in the wings, ready to squeeze the poor.

Production companies: Palomar, Vision Distribution
Cast: Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea, Mattia Piano Del Baldo, Ciro Vecchione, Ciro Pellecchia, Ar Tem, Alfredo Turitto, Paquale Marotta, Luca Nacario, Carmine Pizzo
Director: Claudio Giovannesi
Screenwriters: Maurizio Braucci, Claudio Giovannesi, Roberto Saviano, based on Saviano’s novel
Producers: Carlo Degli Espositi, Nicola Serra
Executive producer: Gian Luca Chiaretti
Director of photography: Daniele Cipri
Production designer: Daniele Frabetti
Costume designer: Olivia Bellini
Editor: Giuseppe Trepiccione
Music: Andrea Moscianese, Claudio Giovannesi
Casting director: Chiara Polizzi
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Elle Driver

105 minutes