Piranhas offers an exciting entry in the teen crime genre
The title of the absorbing Italian film Piranhas refers to the Nico (Francesco Di Napoli), and his pals—a gang of teenagers who rise up and take over the turf in their Neapolitan neighborhood. Their road to success is a combination of moxie and opportunity, and much of the dramatic tension in this intense film stems from what might happen at any given moment. Scenes of young kids playing with guns, a chase on Vespas through the city’s narrow streets, or even an episode where teen lovers steal away for a kiss are all fraught with danger. The film fizzles with excitement throughout which is why it is so engaging.
If Piranhas does not offer much new in the teen-crime/mafia genre, that is not a drawback for viewers who appreciate these kinds of films. Director Claudio Giovannesi co-wrote the screenplay with Roberto Saviano (author of the film’s source novel) and Maurizio Braucci. (The latter two penned Gomorrah, another Naples-set mafia film, also based on a Saviano book). Their bonafides indicate that they know this territory well and that they know how to tell a story well too.
The film opens as Nico and his half-dozen buddies—they all have names and personality traits, but the film focuses mainly on Nico—are heading out to a nightclub. Nico is concerned that his mother (Valentina Vannino), who is not much older than he, is getting shaken down for “protection money” from the local mob flunkies. On their way to the club, the guys meet Letizia (Viviana Apria) and a friend of hers stranded on the side of the road. The guys give the girls a lift to the club where the young women are ushered in, but the guys can’t get past the doorman.
Instead Nico connects that night with Agostino (Pasquale Marrato), whose crime family has lost power and fallen out of favor in the neighborhood. There is a nice rapport (and more than a little homoerotism) between the handsome Nico and Agostino. But Nico needs a job and since Agostino can’t help him get one, Nico appeals to a local crime boss for work.
During a pivotal wedding scene, Nico sees a chance to grab some power, which he does, and he includes Agostino and his brother in his plan. What transpires has Nico playing the ends against the middle as he rises to power—getting guns from a kingpin under house arrest and carving out his territory through threats and intimidation. One particular sequence, involving Nico donning drag to sneak into a house to teach someone a lesson is especially exciting. Filmed without music, this episode bristles with suspense.
Piranhas also depicts the intimate relationship that develops between Nico and Letizia. Although their romance is off-screen for long stretches during the action scenes, her role is critical in to how the narrative plays out. It is not hard to root for this young couple when they talk about getting out of their town.
But, of course, fate and the other members of the area Cosa Nostra want to make sure Nico doesn’t get too big for his britches. Piranhas builds to its climax with acts of betrayal and a scene where bullets are fired. It may feel slightly contrived at times, but it never feels inauthentic. Part of this is Giovannesi’s style of filming creates a you-are-there sensation. When Nico and his friends all pile onto a couch to take a selfie or look down from their balconies or the upper floor of a nightclub, viewers share their vantage point and giddiness.
Moreover, the director coaxes a star turn from the magnetic Francesco Di Napoli in his film debut. Di Napoli is charismatic to watch throughout—from checking his hair in a mirror, to swaggering with a confidence and cockiness that belies his fifteen years.
Piranhas may not be original, but it sure is gripping.
Piranhas opens today in Philly theaters.