Gangster movies – The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, Scarface, et al. – are often a blend of malevolence and nobility. People act cruelly and violently, but often see themselves (and we may see them) as doing so for a good cause – family, community. Piranhas, directed by Claudio Giovannesi, fits into that narrative thread, but by focusing on young people as they become involved in crime, the film seeks to offer a look at the corruption that grows as the youths become more and more involved.
The story focuses on fifteen-year-old Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) and his scooter-riding friends. They live in an area of Naples that has long been controlled by the Camorra mafia. When his mother is threatened by local thugs over “insurance” money, the boys plan a robbery of a local store. However, since the store is under the protection of the local gang, the boys are brought to “justice”. But in the process, they convince the local boss that they can be of help. Soon they are low level drug dealers but begin to look for ways to advance.
The taste of power and money soon become the driving force of the story. Nicola allies himself with another young man, the son of the former ruling family of the region. Together they gather arms and set up to take over the territory. Nicola immediately tells all the vendors and shopkeepers that they no longer have to pay insurance. Nicola sees himself as a benevolent dictator. But soon betrayal and divisions begin to bring it all down.
Because these are teenagers, we see in them a mixture of innocence (or naivete), idealism, and hope. But we also see all the forces that within a theological framework we might call sin. They are driven by greed, pride, and anger as they seek their place in the world. But the choices they make to find that place lead only briefly to happiness, and soon will lead to tragedy.
The struggle between the virtuous elements of Nicola’s makeup and the seemingly inevitable descent into violence and evil leads us to consider how we understand human nature. Are we inherently good or doomed to sin? Because the boys are on the cusp between innocence and evil, we see the battle between those forces being played out in their lives.
Photos courtesy of Music Box Films