Review: Piranhas

In this adaptation of Roberto Saviano’s (Gomorrah) coming of age novel a group of fifteen-year-old boys in Naples transform themselves from one of the city’s many adolescent street gangs into a gun toting mafia presence. These boys begin the film as pretty naive, just out to have some fun, but when Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) grows weary of his mom being extorted for “protection” money he seeks out the son of a murdered crime boss and soon he and his friends are working for a drug dealer and making some serious money. And from there they work their way up the food chain, leaving their childish lives behind in a pool of blood.

The center of the film is Nicola, a handsome teenager who lives with his single mom and his kid brother. The neighborhood is accustomed to paying off a group of thugs and barely keeping their heads above water. But Nicola and his pack of friends are looking for a way out. They ride around on their scooters, looking for fun and sometimes tangling with the other adolescent gangs of Naples. They’re constantly wishing to be able to buy nice clothes and get into fancy clubs. And after bungling the robbery of a Rolex shop, they’re introduced to the mob boss in the neighborhood, who quickly sees their potential in his drug selling biz. And they start making some real money. They’re set, but it isn’t enough and soon they find a way to run the old mob out and become the new head of the hood, still collecting “protection” money from prostitutes, but leaving the poor shopkeepers alone. Nicola really wants to be the benevolent mob boss. But it isn’t so easy. He and his friends have become ruthless but they’re still kids, and shooting guns is just part of their new fun. Their age is on stark display when they acquire the guns they need, but have to use YouTube videos to learn how to use them.

The film is at its best when it deals with daily life in their impoverished neighborhood. Everyone is paying people who don’t do anything for them, and dreaming of a bigger, better life. When Nicola comes into his first big payoff, he takes his mom out to buy furniture for their apartment and of course they go for the over-the-top brands. And he and his friends return to a store they’d been kicked out of earlier to buy all the clothes and shoes they can carry. There’s no hiding what is clearly ill gotten gain. And the clubs that had denied entry earlier are all too happy to take their money.

There’s a side story about Nicola finding himself a pretty girlfriend, but the main story is the boys becoming gangsters. It’s easy to see how they might be seduced by the lifestyle that their new power affords them. Nicola wants to protect his mom and his brother and his girl, but as he gets farther along, the film and his life become messier. Unknown and untrained actor Francesco Di Napoli is perfect as the antihero, as are his gang. They’re all swaggering their way up as only a Neapolitan teenager can. The script could have probably gone for more focus and more character development beyond Nicola, but it’s a worthy addition to the making of a mobster canon. If mafia movies are your thing, you’ll probably see the many references from Scorsese to Coppola and beyond. It’s not on their level, but it’s worth a look.

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