2019, NR, 105 min. Directed by Claudio Giovannesi. Starring Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea, Mattia Piano Del Balzo.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., Aug. 30, 2019
Modern-day Naples has gotten a bit sloppy with its corruption. Caught in the transition between a respected mob boss and his ruthless successor, teens like 15-year-old Nicola (Di Napoli) drift through life, watching as their parents turn over every penny to the hired muscle. To escape this cycle of poverty, Nicola joins up with the local crime family and sells weed to college students in the hope he can convince his bosses to ease up on his mother’s laundromat. When the new boss proves himself to be weak, however, Nicola cuts a deal with the children of the departed mob boss to make a name for himself in this town.
Given the rags-to-riches Mafia narrative Piranhas is built upon, it’s no surprise that Giovannesi’s film has received comparisons – both favorable and unfavorable – to Goodfellas. As in Scorsese’s film, we are introduced to a group of young men who swap the names and affiliations of Mafiosos the way some kids collect baseball cards. Unlike Goodfellas, however, Piranhas is a gangster movie without the gangsters. This a film devoid of father figures; one gang leader has been murdered, another has been arrested, and a third put under house arrest, content to smuggle weapons to Nicola and his friends for a little action on the side. The film is as much about the way young men navigate this power vacuum as it is about their rise to power.
The highlight of the film is Di Napoli, who plays Nicola with a wisdom beyond his station; as a student of organized crime, he knows that most families are struggling to hold their ground, making his death an unwanted complication in the grand scheme of things. Nicola is the first to smile, the first to engage with the local community, and – when the time comes – the first to pull the trigger, making an example of a holdout from the old regime. Di Napoli’s bright smile suggests a man who believes all bad things in life will skip over him, but he’s not above greasing the gears a little to avoid unnecessary exposure for himself and his friends.
Adapting La Paranza dei Bambini, novelist Roberto Saviano's follow-up to his explosive true crime exposé Gomorrah, Giovannesi wisely holds back on real-world violence. Instead, he favors adolescent fantasy, suggesting that Nicola and his friends survive the ever-changing loyalties of the neighborhood by putting their faith in their peers. Despite the film’s modern setting – characters constantly take selfies with their cell phones and pose their guns on nightstands to make them as photogenic as possible – there’s a lack of cynicism behind the boys' actions. They take their crime seriously and are terribly competent in how they exact revenge, but Giovannesi indulges the childishness of his characters without framing it as foreshadowing. These are just kids who have forever been fascinated by the world of organized crime; when they are finally invited to participate, they react with as much enthusiasm and bravado as you'd expect from a 15-year-old.
Piranhas is a film about the journey, not the destination. We know enough about the crime genre to see the tragic ending coming a hundred miles away, but until we arrive, we’re sucked in by the dynamic performance of Di Napoli and the infectious enthusiasm of youth. This is as grounded a Mafia movie as you’ll ever hope to see on the big screen.