Piranhas (La paranza dei bambini) opens with a theft; a battle between two rival gangs and a government building Christmas tree. Who are these battling gangs? Don’t know. Why do they want it? We have our suspicions, but they are never confirmed. We will never learn exactly who is whom and who’s turf is what because that is not the concern. The concern is the boys perpetrating the crime: 15-year-olds mostly, some younger. Nothing is given to these boys; everything is taken. Even lives.

Directed by Claudio Giovannesi — who co-wrote the script with Maurizio Braucci and Roberto Saviano from Saviano’s novel — Piranhas is the story of low-level gangsters on their way up; if they can stay alive long enough.

Using strong compositions with a multitude of faces filling each frame, Giovannesi — working with cinematographer Daniele Ciprì — favors long takes over choppy editing to tell the story of Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli), a leader of sorts, and Letizia (Vivian Aprea), his girlfriend from a rival territory. They meet, fall for each other, start dating, and quickly realize that life together will be more difficult than they thought. Same goes for Nicola and his band of pubescent gangsters: They meet, befriend each other, start a gang, and quickly realize that strong-arm tactics are a lot harder than they fantasied.

The fantasy aspect — which resides solely in the character’s minds — is what makes Piranhas work. There’s a history at work here, both in the neighborhoods these gangs fight over and the gangsters they play-act at being. Gangsters are a kind of modern-day cowboy, and each one of these teens sees themselves as John Wayne in a designer tee shirt. From the way they ride their scooters in formation to how they hold their guns to make it look threatening without being able to hit anything, every aspect of Piranhas documents how a young boy models himself after his idols on the screen. One scene even has Nicola’s younger brother and his friends discovering a crate of semi-automatic rifles. The way they fetishize the weapons is reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ Scarface, only these are children, 10 or 12 maybe. If Nicola and his crew weren’t young enough, these boys remind the audience that there is still another generation coming up behind them.

Piranhas is not an easy watch — though it is quite good — in an America being shot up daily. The movie neither humanizes nor psychoanalyzes the toxicity that led these boys to this point, and it doesn’t have to. No movie must speak to this moment and this moment alone. Maybe that’s why these kinds of movies are tough to watch; they remind us how eternal this violence truly is.

Directed by Claudio Giovannesi
Screenplay by Maurizio Braucci, Roberto Saviano, Claudio Giovannesi
Based on the novel The Piranhas: The Boss Boys of Naples by Roberto Saviano
Produced by Carlo Degli Esposti, Nicola Serra
Starring: Francesco Di Napoli, Ar Tem, Alfredo Turitto, Viviana Aprea, Valentina Vannino
Music Box Films, Not Rated, Running time 112 minutes, Opens August 9, 2019