The latest adaptation of a Roberto Saviano novel is a familiar, but inventive crime drama.
A sturdy but ultimately unremarkable slice of Italian criminal life, Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas tells a familiar story of a rising gangster – but it’s set apart by its emphasis on the immaturity of its characters and the transparency of its world. Adapted from a novel by Roberto Saviano, whose novel Gomorrah was also made into a popular arthouse hit and subsequent television show, this is another film about the effects of organized crime on locals.
The neighborhood of Sanitá in Italy is anything but a criminal underworld as the local Quarteri gang reigns over the community, extorting local businesses and selling on the corner in broad daylight. The only real jobs to make money for the local kids are as dealers and toughs pinching Euros from the shopkeepers for the bosses.
Bullish and motivated but unrelated to either the Quarteri or the other prestigious families of the area, the 15-year-old Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) dreams of the halcyon days when the Striano family kept the peace and didn’t feel the need to take from local businesses like his mother (Valentina Vannino). Nicola and his makeshift gang of friends quickly make a name for themselves after they unsuccessfully rob a jewelry store owned by a Quarteri associate, Lino Samataro (Aniello Arena). Drawn into the Quarteri, Nicola and his young friends become corner boys for Samataro as shown in a great scene where Samataro makes each boy precisely cut a slice of weed from a large block to demonstrate the exact amount for each customer.
As a filmmaker, Giovannesi and his cinematographer, Daniele Ciprí favor a neo-realist aesthetic – lots of unbroken takes, especially in scenes of violence where the artificial pop of the guns serve as an effective dissonance with their effects. But the atmosphere isn’t overly dry, Giovannesi spends plenty of time in tight throughways capturing Nicola and his gang speeding along on their Vespas surrounded on both sides by neighborhood life.
The film doesn’t really expand in the way that one expects of a gangster film.
Smartly, the film doesn’t really expand in the way that one expects of a gangster film. It’s only a matter of time before Nicola has higher aspirations, even as his new job leads to him being able to drop huge amounts of money on sneakers, clothes, and his new girlfriend, Letizia (Viviana Aprea), who is immediately impressed by his largesse. But even as Nicola rises in prominence with the help of the surviving Striano sons and another fallen family, Giovannesi keeps the scope small. The other families are an ongoing concern, but they’re rendered with intentional anonymity.
As Nicola’s arc moves forward, life as a crime boss is expectedly less glamorous than he hopes but Piranhas thankfully doesn’t lean too heavily into the gulf between his perceptions and the reality. Rather, it finds an appealing balance between the tedious routine of being a dealer, the fragile nature of holding onto turf, and the quiet reminders of his young age. These moments work particularly well when they emphasize the underhanded nature that’s required to get ahead in the world as epitomized most explicitly by Nicola masking his identity by crossdressing to carry out a hit on a former boss who would have recognized him a mile away or when he first woos Letizia by sending his boys to give a badmouthing guy a swirlie.
The specter of tragedy drapes over the film, an inevitability that suffuses every moment with dread as Nicola and his rising gang taunt established rivals, wave around assault rifles for selfies, and act like dumb, impulsive kids. And that is what they are at the end of the day no matter how many bullets they fire. One of the final scenes hilariously juxtaposes Nicola having a fit over his little brother finishing off his cookies before he goes to the balcony to survey his land and wave to local business owners.
Piranhas could use more of these scenes as it settles into a rut in its final minutes, reasserting the violence of its setting but dragging the film into much less effective territory of innocence lost. But that feels a small complaint for a crime film that’s thankfully more interested in humans than mythmaking.
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