A gang of youngsters steals a giant Christmas tree for apparently no reason, and celebrates the accomplishment by lighting a bonfire and dancing around it shirtless, with war marks painted on their faces and torsos. The shamelessly pointless bravery of the kids invites viewers to acknowledge right from the start that the protagonists of Piranhas (La paranza dei bambini). are first and foremost kids, who play silly yet dangerous games in order to feel brave and powerful. With every “game” the stakes become higher, and the boy eventually try to take over the whole district of Sanità. Inevitably, the members of the young gang start losing people dear to them, and are forced to commit increasingly serious acts, to the point where there is no way out of this vicious circle other than death.
It is this constant reminder that death is a very real possibility that sets the mood and rhythm of the entire film, and which emphasizes the consequences of the teenagers’ “games”. By focusing on these unusually young criminals, Piranhas offers precious insight into the multifaceted fight for power in crime-torn Naples without stumbling into stereotypical representations of the Mafia and Southern Italy. The members of the gang are not portrayed as greedy and shady drug addicts, but rather as regular kids who have been lured to commit crimes by their circumstances, as they live in a society which normalises violence and crime and praises luxury and prestige. Nonetheless, the film refuses to give too much attention to the relationship between the gang’s acts and society, and prefers to focus on what it means to be both a teenager and a criminal, and on how difficult it is to build a future for oneself in Naples.
That most of the film’s dialogues are in Neapolitan makes the film more authentic and allows the characters to better express their personality. The dialogues are particularly well written and make correct use of contemporary teenage slang, emphasising the difference between teenagers and adults. Although the film does offer some social commentary, it is not moralistic and does not convey its message explicitly, so that the film as a whole can be enjoyed by most audiences. However, most of the action scenes are very different from what might be seen in an action movie, as the director prevents viewers from indulging in suspenseful sequences. Close-ups of the kids are intercalated with long shots which invite the audience to acknowledge the absurdity of the gang’s acts, and the surrounding emptiness and quietness of these scenes emphasizes the irrelevance of their acts for most of the neighbourhood’s inhabitants. Violence is present but marginal, and the spectacle it usually represents is denied to the spectator.
There is very little chance that anyone watching the film will identify with one of the protagonists, and the empathy most people are bound to feel for them is limited and counterpointed by the inexcusably foolish nature of the kids’ actions. The kids’ irrationality is also implied by the original Italian title, which translated literally means “the children’s paranza”. Paranza is a Neapolitan word which indicates an armed group within the Camorra, but it also refers to young fishes which are attracted by the light of the fishermen and which are caught in the nets in their attempt to reach the source of light. Similarly, the kids are charmed by the prospect of becoming rich and affording luxury products, as commanded by the consumerist society they live in, even though they are perfectly aware that they are going to die. This adaptation of a novel by Roberto Saviano (writer of Gomorrah and co-screenwriter of the film) focuses on the lesser known side of the Camorra, showing that adults are not the only ones responsible for the crimes of Southern Italy, and that armed teenagers can be just as dangerous as their fathers. Despite some occasional flaws in the acting and a rather uninventive directing style, the film succeeds in combining a strong narrative with an underlying social commentary, entertaining the audience while forcing them to engage with what they are seeing on screen.
This review is an abridged version of a longer article published in German on Film Bulletin’s website. Here’s the link to the original article.