By Ali Moosavi.
Pirahnas, which won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, is based on a novel by Roberto Saviano, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Saviano also performed this double duty on Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone, 2008). Pirahnas begins with a scene inside a deserted shopping mall. Two rival youth gangs fight over a giant Christmas tree at the centre of the mall. It is just an act of youthful folly. Nothing more. But from these innocent beginnings the seeds of criminality are sown.
Saviano and director Claudio Giovannesi, take us on this journey of loss of innocence with these boys. A journey of going from playful youths to full-blown criminals. We see that how, normal youths, with normal aspirations and attributes of boys their age, can be drawn into a life of crime and become trapped in it. The film is set in Naples, home town of writer Savino, who has made the city a prime character in the film.
The central character is the 15-year-old Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli). He lives with his single mother, who runs a dry-cleaning business. She has to pay protection money to the local gang. Nicola is very close to his mother and feels angry and helpless when he sees the gang tormenting her. He hangs around with other boys of his age. They would like to have good clothes, go to clubs where they can meet girls and so on. But in their neighborhood shop, trainers cost 180 Euros and T shirts 200 Euros. The local club does not admit them unless they get a table for 500 Euros. An older, world-weary criminal advises them to become footballers to be able to afford these luxuries; but only very few boys have the skills to at least try their luck in that field.
Once Nicola meets Letizia (Viviana Aprea), and falls head over heels for her, the urge to have money becomes stronger. Nicola is smart and has guts. He has reached his endurance limit regarding his current state of life. So, he joins one of the criminal gangs and, once he has learnt the ropes, forms his own gang.
Pirahnas is engaging and enthralling. It also boasts some inspired moments. One is when Nicola’s gang go to a rooftop to practice shooting. As they start, a fireworks also takes place and we have the juxtaposition of the two “fireworks.” In another scene, Nicola, his gang, and their girlfriends are in the upstairs VIP section of a club. The boys have started to make real money and are sipping champagne and showing off their newly acquired wealth and status to their girlfriends. Nicola stares down at people dancing downstairs with a sense of pride and achievement, not too dissimilar to Tony Montana (Al Pacino) in Scarface (Brian De Palma, 1983) or Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill in Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990).
Perhaps the one thing that works against Pirahnas is this sense of déjà vu. In addition to the aforementioned scenes, many scenes of the young gang together are reminiscent of Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984). When Nicola decides that his gang will not hassle the small shops and businesses and ask them for protection money, we see similarities with Robert De Niro’s young Vito Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974).
Pirahnas has also many things going for it. Apart from the award winning script, Francesco Di Napoli, assisted by director Claudio Giovannesi gives a very convincingly charismatic performance as Nicola, gaining our full attention and sympathy, as has happened with all such celluloid crime bosses before, from Vito Corelone to Tony Montana. We view them more as Robin Hood type characters rather than evil men. Nicola, being very young, even acquires even more sympathy. We also just accept the unusual fact that Nicola’s mother does not raise any concern or misgivings about the source of Nicola’s new found wealth and is happy to spend her share. Giovannesi, who directed a few episodes of the TV series of Gomorrah (2016), has managed to make a film which is a fitting companion to the series.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).