It’s one of those coincidences with which film history is littered, that Claudio Giovannesi’s Naples-set young-Camorra saga “Piranhas” played in the Berlinale competition — going on to win the best screenplay award — while Agostino Ferrente’s documentary, “Selfie,” set in the very same milieu, debuted to much less fanfare in the Panorama sidebar. The films are, almost perfectly, opposite sides of the same coin — one fiction, the other non-fiction; one broodingly glossy, the other delivered in helter-skelter iPhone images recorded by the subjects themselves. Still, while ostensibly “constrained” by reality, “Selfie” ultimately has the more original and involving take on sunny Neapolitan childhoods threatened by the shadow of organized crime. And not just because Ferrente’s two fantastic teenage protagonists are doing their plucky, bumbling, endearing best to skirt that darkness, where their fictional counterparts succumb all too easily to its lure.
Ale and Pietro are 16-year-old boys living in Rione Traiano, a crime-heavy region in Naples where in 2014 a friend of theirs, Davide Bifolco, was chased down and killed by police who mistook him for a Camorra gangster. They are ordinary, slouchy teenage boys: Ale’s face is sprayed with acne, his hair shaven high around the sides and falling into a lank quiff on top. Pietro has a little black mustache and glasses and recently gained a lot of weight after a bout of stress eating. Glancing down at his bulky torso with big, wet, sincere eyes, he says, “I’m pretty revolting now.” He couldn’t be more wrong.
The deeply lovable pair, firm friends since childhood, were chosen by Ferrente through an audition process, some of which makes it into the finished film, along with occasional, foreboding security camera footage of roadsides and street corners such as the ones Davide sped through on the last day of his life. But mostly, as the title suggests, the film is shot selfie-style: The boys were given an iPhone apiece, with instructions about keeping themselves in frame as much as possible, and sent out to document their everyday lives.
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The footage they shoot — sharp and colorful in its off-kilter framing and wonky angles — is lively and full of personality. Separately and together they have prosaic moments, lazing around at home or sunbathing on a sidewalk, as well as profound encounters, like a visit to Davide’s father or a trip up a hill that turns into an odyssey. There are heartfelt to-camera confessionals about life in Traiano and juvenile jokes like a quick shot of Pietro grinning naughtily while he films himself on the toilet. But through all the buzzing mopeds, self-conscious posturing and inane breeze-shooting (we meet their extended circle of acquaintance as well), a bigger picture emerges of a friendship that is touchingly steadfast and sensitive.
Ale works as a barista and Pietro has ambitions of becoming a hairdresser; both are resisting the temptation of working for the local Camorra faction. The guys only a few years older who show up for Ferrente’s audition are harder around the eyes and quicker to sneer: They already seem to have lost that innocence. Then again, maybe they never had it. A couple of younger boys show up to try out, too, and spend their audition wheedling for cigarettes and talking about avenging a murdered uncle. Sixteen-year-old Sara is even more chilling: In full-face makeup and gaudy nails, she has already decided that if her future husband only gets 10 years, she’ll wait, but 20? That’s a long time. The possibility that her husband might not go to prison, or indeed that she might not get married, does not seem to have occurred to her. “It’s written in stars,” she says, writing off the rest of her life with a fatalistic shrug.
For Ale and Pietro, that sense of being trapped in Traiano’s bright, dangerous streets with no possibility of social mobility is present from the outset. But over the months we follow them, a subtle but profound change occurs, a palpable broadening of previously narrow horizons. Ferrente is upfront about using his project to bring about positive change (in one half-joking off-camera moment, we hear him make the two younger boys promise to quit smoking if he “casts” them, and then he promptly casts them). And as nimbly edited film zips by, we get the pleasing feeling of collaborating on a bigger intervention as Ale and Pietro grow in confidence purely through the empowering act of telling their story in their own way. It’s a wrench to leave them, but when we do, it’s with a thrill of hope that though so many young people do not escape the dangers lurking in this beautiful, fraught place, maybe these two just might, through the lenses of two borrowed iPhones.