At the kingpin table on the mezzanine level of a Neapolitan nightclub, Nicola (Francesco di Napoli) snorts a line of coke and slings his arm around Letizia (Viviana Aprea) while Tyson (Ar Tem) pops a bottle of champagne. Over the pulsing music, the whole jostling crew laughs down at the 500€-a-table territory below, noting from their Godlike perch which neighborhood gangs are looking up at them with animosity, which with envy. Claudio Giovannesi’s “Piranhas” begins a few short weeks before this scene, when Nicola’s penniless gang gets turned away from places like this, but look, now he’s made it! He is 15 years old.
Based on the book “La Paranza dei Bambini” (“The Children’s Parade”) by “Gomorrah” writer Roberto Saviano who co-wrote the screenplay, “Piranhas” is both helped and hamstrung by its central, chilling observation: The children of central Naples are inducted into the mob lifestyle, its tribalism, gun violence, and the cycle of death and retribution, at an ever younger age. But to watch young people fall into old patterns is still to watch those old patterns, and the film cannot escape the familiarity of its archetypal, rise-to-power, fall-from-grace narrative.
The locations teem with the real life of the city, and the cast is made up of local kids and non-professionals from the area who innately understand its invisible demarcations and hierarchies. But despite some fine, if perhaps overly glossy filmmaking and the charisma of many of these first-timers, it’s likely that the commercially viable, solidly made “Piranhas” will remain top of the mob-movie pile for about as long as its kid-Godfather will occupy that top table — that is, only until the next one comes along.
There is some immediacy gained from the way the film was shot — in sequence and over a period of weeks apparently not that much shorter than the entire span covered by the film. But it also means that we’re only introduced to Nicola and his gang right before their irrevocable plunge into criminality. “We’re decent guys!” claims Nicola more than once. “We wouldn’t harm a fly!” But a scene or two later, they’re gleefully rooting through a bag of guns, and practice-shooting under the cover of a fireworks display. The loss-of-innocence narrative is constrained by these characters never having that much innocence to lose.
Still, it’s a mild shock when Nicola commits his first violent crime, partly because although Daniele Ciprì’s elegant, classical cinematography caresses the photogenic di Napoli in frequent closeups, we never really get a sense of the thought processes going on behind those high cheekbones. At the outset his motivation for allying himself with a local mobster is depressingly logical: If he becomes a lieutenant, perhaps he can prevail on his new colleagues to stop extorting protection money from his mother’s dry-cleaning business. And it will provide him and his sidekicks with the cash to afford the things they want — the Adidas gear, the nightclub tables, the garish furniture (there’s a little humor in Nicola’s awestruck admiration for what can only be described as Trump Tower kitsch, including a white-and-gold liquor cabinet in the inexplicable shape of a double bass).
The only complicating factor is that Nicola has befriended Agostino (Pasquale Marotta), the son of the previous murdered Don, who is therefore regarded as the enemy by the new regime. But when his new boss is arrested (at the wedding of his niece, which again feels like a scene we’ve watched a fair few times before), Nicola is quick to propose that he and Agostino step in to fill the power vacuum. All they need is a gun; and the distance from there to forming new alliances, committing territorial violence and murder is no distance at all.
Within such a well-established framework, the very youth of the protagonists undercuts some of the stakes. At one point, for political reasons, Nicola has to break with the lovely Letizia, and as the pair form the film’s central romance (complete with first date at the opera), this is supposed to have the gravitas of great sacrifice on his part. But they’re also just two 21st-century teenagers so it’s a little hard to regard their puppy love as some tragic amour fou. Similarly, the moment inevitably arrives when the brotherly bond between Nicola and Agostino is tested, and while the outcome will have major repercussions for the whole gang (who are otherwise not terribly well differentiated), it’s hard to feel anguish for loyalties so hastily formed.
The film’s prologue promises a more powerful, original experience than the “Piranhas” we get. After stealing a Christmas tree from one of those lovely, marbled Italian malls, Nicola and his friends build a massive bonfire and drink and dance in its glow like painted savages. In this electric opening, Giovannesi’s film feels raw and dangerous and alive with unknowable potential — more infused with the youthful vibe of his own neorealist debut “Ali Blue Eyes” — so it’s a pity that, like its swaggering protagonists, it has to grow up so soon.