Claudio Giovannesi’s film Piranhas (Italian: La Paranza dei bambini) is based on the novel “Gomorrah” written by Roberto Saviano, which also inspired Garrone’s film “Gomorrah”. “Paranza” is mob slang for an armed group in the service of the Camorra.
But Piranhas is not just another story about Naples’ crime scene. It’s a twisted coming of age story of a young boy named Nicola, very truthfully portrayed by Francesco di Napoli. Nicola is a good-looking, charming 15 year old boy, who inevitably drifts into the mafia scene. It is a story told through innocence and emotions.
Giovannesi focuses on the kids’ fragility. There are a lot of close-ups of their faces and their perspective is at the center of the film. We see a wealth of action shots of the boys running through the alleys or riding their scooters. Most of the shots are in close-up, bringing immediacy to the story. It is a hauntingly real portrayal of the youth in Naples’ crime scene.
The kids in your movie are all non-professional actors. You said the three qualities you were looking for were innocence, direct exposure to the themes of the script, and an innate talent for acting. How do you recognize the talent?
“Beautiful question. Of course, it was not like a normal casting where the actors prepare monologues or a scene. The most important thing when choosing non- professional actors is that they have direct knowledge of the themes of the film. And the kids I chose all knew someone – a cousin, a friend – who went through the things that happened in the film. I think the most important thing is that actors have an innate talent. When I was 6 years old I had a friend who now works in finance. While I was drawing triangles, he was already solving math problems. I think it is the same with acting. My casting was very different than normal castings, of course. No head shots, no casting directors in the room, no prepared scenes. My casting team and I just went to certain areas in Naples and looked around. Francesco, for example, we met in a bar. We started talking to him and invited him to come to our casting the next day. He did not show up. We called him and he said he did not come because he thought it was a trick. So we told him “No, no it is real” and the next day he came. So, the way the casting worked was that I would tell the kids what the scene was about, without showing the script. They did not have to memorize anything. The most important aspects are the objectives and intentions. I needed to convey the feelings to them. And then once they did the scene we just cut down dialogue. The first time they did the scene they would use a lot of words, then the next time I would just tell them to cut it down and we kept going like that until the scene worked. It was a long auditioning process, we did 7 callbacks”.
And how was the process of the filming?
“The boys never read the script, but we went in chronological order so they could live the story. The beautiful thing was that the boys actually became friends. The friendship in the film was not acted, it became real”.
It was beautiful because the kids were so relatable. When I watched it I thought, “they are exactly like my brother and his friends – going to clubs, buying expensive clothes, looking for girls”.
“Thank you for saying that because I did not want to make a film about criminals. I wanted to show the innocence – a film about your son, your brother. We have empathy for them. They have the objectives of the consumer society like everywhere else – the clothes, the brands”.
The protagonist, Nicola, seems to have good intentions. How can a person with good intentions survive in an environment like that. Do they have a choice?
“The protagonist is different. He is an idealist. He wants to do good. But he can only do good by doing bad. It’s a paradox. The story is about a boy who learns what is good and what is bad. His intentions are noble, but in the context he lives in, there is no possibility of doing good. There are also no fathers in the movie because they are either dead, or in prison, or they’ve left. I decided to do that because if you show the boys without fathers you show them without role models, without someone to show them how to act. If you do not show fathers you are not showing a guide. They only have negative examples. What career possibilities do the kids have? Career is a word of our society. In the context of their environment their career chance is a criminal career. They can move their way up the criminal chain. It’s the same as everywhere else. Like, if you’re an actress, you have the ambition to get work. It is the same with these boys”.
So they don’t have a choice?
Roberto Saviano talked a little bit about the dangers of journalism and his point of view on the Mafia. Did you ever experience something like that? Do you think there is a certain danger in making movies about the Mafia?
“Roberto did something different. He did investigative journalism. My film is about human nature, not about an investigation of the Mafia. I mean, I hope it’s not dangerous. I am still here, so..”
What do you think about the future of the Mafia?
“This is on a personal level because I did not want the film to be about criminals. It is about the love and friendship between the boys. If they are Austrian or Neapolitan, if they are rich or poor, the feelings are the same. They fall in love like normal people. Putting the human being first makes you understand others. In Italy at the moment, everything is focused on fear: fear of the immigrants, fear of poverty. How can that change? It can change if there is work. When there is no work and no help from the government, criminal organizations start to rise”.
Can you talk about your influences as a filmmaker?
“An author and director who influenced me a lot since I was a young boy was Pasolini. He is an intellectual who understood Western society. The human essence is always at the center of his films, which is the most important thing for me. Not the drama, not the plot twists. In contemporary European cinema my influences are the Dardenne Brothers and the English filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Hollywood I do not like, except for maybe the old classics. But the industry annoys me. Except of course, I like filmmakers like Scorsese for example”.
What are you in the process of doing now? Do you have a new project coming up?
“Well, I finished this film in February, which is when it came out in Italy, and then we went to Berlin. It is coming out in 32 countries. We are lucky, of course, that the film is successful, but it means that I am travelling a lot presenting the film. There is not much time for something new at the moment. Yesterday the film came out in Paris, so I am going there next. I think I will need a little bit of a break to figure out where to go next after this film”.
What do you think about New York? Could it inspire you for a film?
“I like New York a lot. Right now in Italy a lot of people are afraid of immigrants; New York is very multi-cultural. And also, even though it is in the United States it is a very European city. I would love to do a film here. You would need a story that makes sense to take place here in New York, probably something about immigration and the multi-cultural nature of New York”.
Piranhas opened the Festival on June 6th at 6 PM and will close the festival on June 12th at 9:15 PM at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center.
For a full schedule of the festival click here.