Directed by #ClaudioGiovannesi
Film review by Nathanial Eker
A clear homage to the work of early Italian neo-realists, Piranhas chomps on a plethora of meaty themes: stolen childhood innocence, poverty, organised crime, and the nature of family loyalty are all the victim of biting commentary. Unfortunately, director Claudio Giovannesi too often favours style over substance, crafting a half-hearted documentary aesthetic that fails to develop true character in favour of juvenile anarchistic avatars.
Nicola is a Naples lad with ambition as sharp as his cheek bones. He lives a life of relative poverty with his single mother and younger brother. After seeing the riches of a former mafia boss’s apartment, he and his gang of fifteen-year-old Vespa enthusiasts recognise that in their corrupt city, crime is the logical path to success. What follows is an archetypical gangster rise and fall, albeit infused with a coating of Disney channel teenage melodrama.
The quasi-realistic tone serves Piranhas well, in terms of its mise-en-scène. Naples is mostly un-stylised; never shot from above, without garish Hollywood lighting, lacking any shots of notable landmarks that could define a sense of place. This effectively crafts a gritty tone, emphasising Giovannesi’s attack on the dirty, despoiled state of the modern path to wealth. Symbolism and imagery are rife, particularly the seemingly out of place opening scene where the boys destroy a Christmas tree during a conflict with a rival gang, foreshadowing their inevitable loss of innocence.
Unfortunately, despite an excellent employment of subtext and visual subtleties, this piranha ultimately swims in a shallow pool. Characters are skin deep, giving no sense of who they are behind arbitrary physical quirks. Even the charismatic performance of the appropriately named Di Napoli fails to mask Nicola’s intolerable dullness. Despite establishing plausible surface level motivations, the writers fail to craft a compelling arc for him, instead delivering a bizarre mishmash of immature eccentricities and gangster film stereotypes; Scarface he isn’t, unfortunately.
The somewhat ambiguous ending asks us to view Pirhanas as a slice of real life and a would-be documentary. Unfortunately, the chosen slice is implausible, offering no sense of logic to the reality that Giovannesi seems desperate to chastise. Questions are plentiful; where are the police? Why are the motivations of children so insanely adultised? There are hints towards Nicola’s situation; his lack of a father figure, for example, but the behaviour of his comrades remains inexcusable. The unified group approach to criminality is not only jarringly unrealistic, but also unsettling; seeing children of fifteen snort cocaine is an unnecessarily unpleasant addition.
Thus, Pirhanas leaves us with a somewhat sour taste. Baseless plotting and poorly developed characterisation expose a script that fails to unite with the realism infused stylistics that Giovannesi clearly has at his disposal. Pirhanas is beautifully shot, inarguably, but its players are little more than pawns to the director’s satirical whims. No single character acts with genuine motivation; they exist to facilitate a wider thematic discussion and are instead more indicative of the one-note gangster caricatures of a simpler time. Regrettably then, when your Tony Montana is too young to even legally buy a can of Red Bull, the plot somewhat loses its sting.