There’s a long standing trope in crime thrillers of young people being drawn into organised crime, recruited by the trappings and extravagance of ill-gotten gains. Whether it’s Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Departed or just about any mafiosa drama of the past 50 years, it’s always part and parcel of the way these organisations are made up. When you combine that with source material based on the real-life experiences of Roberto Saviano (the writer of Gomorrah) you get something pretty special. Although the original title is La Paranza dei Bambini, in many ways the English title of Piranhas is all the more accurate when describing the world the film inhabits.
Piranhas follows 15-year-old Nicola as he navigates life in Naples. His mother is one of many shop owners pressed into giving protection money to criminals in the area, while the most recent crime syndicate controls everything that goes on, and a recently deposed family skulk in the shadows. Nicola establishes relationships with the former kingpins as he clearly prefers their methodology. However, after a jewellery robbery Nicola and his gang of friends end up working for the new family in town, beginning a rise up the criminal food chain until they are in position to seize the neighbourhood themselves. Nicola has to balance his relationship with his mother, his friends, and even his love interest while trying to climb the ladder to success within the criminal underworld.
In the opening paragraph I mentioned Goodfellas, and that is probably about as good a parallel as you are likely to find. Nicola is, in many ways, very similar to Henry Hill in the aforementioned mobster classic. He is young, ambitious and although prepared to do what is necessary he also has a quiet sense of morality about him. It really is a very complex and nuanced performance from Francesco Di Napoli who is excellent here, and it needed to be because in all honesty the other characters are pretty underdeveloped and while the actors involved do as well as they can with their roles, the script severely limits the secondary characters.
It’s worth noting that the look and feel of the film is gritty and visceral, something which very much carries over into the onscreen violence. It isn’t overly choreographed or stylised but that just adds to the realism and sense of brutality to proceedings. It’s shocking at points, but never gratuitous and ultimately it’s effective. In juxtaposition, you are never far from a reminder that Nicola and his friends are still kids, even if they are operating as adults because of the situation. The scene where they receive guns and start playing and celebrating is quite telling, and a brilliant moment that provides a stark contrast that is actually pretty haunting.
The pacing of Piranhas is one of the factors that stops the film from being truly great. It is a slow burn in the first act, and the second act slows way down and feels a bit plodding before things pick up in the final act only for the film to end pretty abruptly. The ending in particular seemed somewhat out of place, given the number of unresolved loose ends, but perhaps that is the point and it’s a reflection of the chaotic nature of the organised crime and how it permeates the culture in Naples.
Piranhas is a strong entry in the tradition of Italian mafia dramas, but like the adaptation of Saviano’s other major work, Gomorrah, it has an air of authenticity to it. It perhaps lacks as strong a narrative as Gomorrah, and it is far from a multi-layered drama, with little sub-plot to speak of. However, an incredible turn from a young lead and a very believable, gritty dark portrayal of Naples makes for a gripping viewing experience that overcomes some of the film’s more obvious shortcomings.