What we call the Mafia isn’t what it used to be, either in the States or in Italy. The work of the Italian journalist and novelist Roberto Saviano in recent years has shocked readers with depictions of cities still under the thumb of contemporary crime “families.” These outfits operate without the operatic flourishes associated with such organizations in popular fictions. Saviano’s book “Gomorrah” was made into a bracing episodic film in 2009 by Matteo Garrone.
The less satisfying “Piranhas,” based on a subsequent Saviano book and directed by Claudio Giovannesi, is an “I Was a Teenage Gangster” tale. In its reliance on a conventional narrative through-line, it’s more reminiscent of “The Public Enemy” than “Goodfellas” in spite of its stylings of contemporary cinematic realism.
Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) is a 15-year-old who’s cheerful, aimless and hard up in his small corner of Naples. After getting turned away at a sleazy albeit exclusive nightclub, and observing squabbles between the gang leaders who battle over rights to sit in the local greasy spoon, he makes overtures to a former crime big shot. His pitch is to assemble his own gang to sell drugs, extort from local businesses, and gain money and status.
“I’ll give you what you need,” one minor capo confined to house arrest says, “but don’t screw up.” Mmm-hmm. “Piranhas” has interesting detail about how the new-style gangsters operate. But despite Di Napoli’s high cheekbones and natural appeal, Nicola isn’t much of a character, toggling between baby-faced innocence and callow ruthlessness, but not much else. When the camera follows him around, looking over his shoulder, it doesn’t add realism to the story; it adds flab.
Not rated. In Italian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
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