Opening today at the Howard Gilman Theater in Lincoln Center, “Piranhas” is a coming-of-age film about 15-year-old wannabe gangsters living on the mean streets of Naples. It is based on a fact-based novel by Robert Saviano titled “La Paranza dei Bambini” that means “The Children’s Gang”, a much better title for a very good film.
Saviano also wrote another fact-based novel titled “Gomorrah”, which the 2008 film of the same name was based on. If Alexander Stile’s “Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic” is the key text for understanding the Sicilian mafia, Saviano’s novels play the same role for the Camorra, the Naples-based mafia that is arguably more embedded in the Italian corporate state than its rivals and more destructive. Unlike the Sicilians, the Neapolitans do not have a hierarchical structure in which a top don controls the clans beneath him. More horizontal than vertical, the gangs in the Campania region of southern Italy are notorious for the bloody feuds that drive the narratives of films based on Saviano’s novels. This review will take up the two aforementioned films as well as “Gomorrah”, the two-season Italian TV series on Netflix that is based on Saviano’s novel with alternating directors, including Claudio Giovannesi who directed “Pirhanas”.
In the first twenty minutes or so of “Piranhas”, you will be struck by the resemblance of its young protagonists to those in Federico Fellini’s “I Vitelloni”, a classic film about rudderless young men living in a small Italian town. In the opening scene, Nicola, the leader of a group of about a dozen boys ruling over the turf in Rione Sanità, a poor and degraded Naples neighborhood, has staked out a 25-foot Christmas tree in a local cathedral with one of his young henchmen. When a rival gang bursts into the church to claim the tree, Nicola scampers to its top to defend it against his rivals, sending his lieutenant off to round up his gang. They then show up and send their enemies packing. Once the coast is clear, they topple the tree and drag it off to a vacant lot where it is used to make a huge bonfire as part of a ritual celebration of their prowess. After stripping to their waist, they paint their faces, dance around the burning tree and chant slogans celebrating their victory over the Quartieri, who rule over the enemy turf. It will strike you as the Naples equivalent of an American high school football team pep rally.
In many ways, they are typical teens. They smoke pot, check out the latest sneakers in local shops, flirt with neighborhood girls, and ride motor scooters through Naples’s ancient, labyrinthine streets.
The first hint that something is different about Naples takes place in Nicola’s mother’s dry cleaning shop. A couple of beefy men show up to collect the protection payoff that is extracted from businesspeople all through the neighborhood. As Nicola watches her helplessly from a backroom unseen by the extortionists, he is pained to see one of them walk off with a customer’s leather coat to punish her for complaining about the hardship they are imposing.
He realizes that to protect her and others living in their turf, he must find a way to inveigle himself into a Camorra gang so that he can tap into the muscle that enforces rules in this Hobbesian universe. With his talent for bravado, he convinces a local don that he and his crew can be relied upon for whatever tasks needed to be carried out. He gets the nod to sell pot outside a local college and defends his territory against other boys working for rival mafias.
Moving up the crime ladder, Nicola next approaches a powerful don under house arrest. If he supplies him and his crew with weapons, he will drive out the gang that has been extorting his mother and run the neighborhood drug trade on his behalf. Armed with machine guns, they murder the old guard and take over. Unlike the stereotypical sadistic mafia gangster seen in most films, Nicola retains the same innocent high school football rally mentality seen earlier in the film and as such is all the more frightening.
“Piranhas” is a portrait of wasted youth and a reminder that Italian filmmakers continue to see organized crime in a completely different manner than their American counterparts who either make works like “The Godfather” or “The Sopranos” with their sympathetic anti-heroes or farces like “Analyze This”. For Italians, any mafia member is welcomed as much as a heart attack or cancer so films like “Piranhas” or “Gomorrah” are the norm.
“Gomorrah” can be rented on iTunes for $3.99 and is well worth it. The characters speak Neapolitan, a Romance language still common in the Campania region. Saviano’s novel is set during the Scampia feud of 2004-2005 that was fought for control of the drugs and prostitution business in the Scampia neighborhood of Naples. While the details of this episode are not necessary for understanding the plot, it is worth pointing out that some of the characters are referred to as “secessionists” as if they were a breakaway republic like Donetsk in the Ukraine. Since I had no idea what kind of secessionist movement existed in modern times other than in Sicily after WWII, I was a bit puzzled. It turns out that “secessionist” was a term used for people who sided with a new faction that was challenging the old guard in the same fashion as in “Piranhas”. Other than this, most of the film will be easy to figure out especially since the main focus is not on gang warfare but its impact on a range of characters far beneath the heights of power.
Two of them are Marco and Ciro, a few years older than the boys in “Piranhas” and just as unaware of the threat they pose to themselves and to others after they get access to a cache of automatic rifles and pistols that have been stashed away by Camorra members. Steeped in American films like “Scarface”, they like to pose with the newly acquired weapons or shoot them aimlessly in a marsh near Naples. They are pathetic figures that reflect the gangster culture that has spread worldwide. So is Totò, a 13-year-old grocery delivery boy with an angelic face who after spotting the drugs and gun a gangster abandoned while fleeing the cops returns them to the gang. Showing the same kind of chutzpah as Nicola, he asks to join. They will accept him only if takes part in an initiation ritual, allowing himself to be shot while wearing a bulletproof vest.
Of the greatest interest to me was Roberto, a college graduate who has been hired as an assistant to Franco, a middle-aged man who is in the waste disposal business that ignores the lenient regulations a mafia-subservient Italian government enacted. As is the case in the USA, illegal toxic dumping can earn millions even at the risk to the health of people living nearby. Finally fed up with being an accessory to a Camorra-connected businessman, he tells Franco he is finished. He no longer wants to put up with making people sick from toxic waste. The dialog between the two is worth repeating:
Franco: You know, guys like me put this shit country [Italy] into Europe [the EU]. You know how many workers I’ve helped by saving their company money?
Roberto: I saw how you helped them live. You save a worker in Mestre [the most populous borough in Venice] and kill a family in Mondragone [a municipality in Campania].
Franco: That’s how it works. But I didn’t decide it. We solve problems created by others. I didn’t create chromium and asbestos. I didn’t dig up the mountains.
I will be briefer about “Gomorrah” on Netflix since time prevented me from seeing anything more than episode one of Season One that boiled down to an exciting but conventional gun battle between two Camorra factions. Given the provenance of the creative team, especially their reliance on Saviano’s novel, I suspect that it will be good. Writing for Indieware, Ben Davies rated it “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, saying this:
Despite its familiar construction, “Gomorrah” is significantly more frightening than others in its genre because of the history behind it. The novel’s author has been in hiding since the non-fiction book broke out, for fear of revenge by the Camorra family. And seeing what that revenge looks like, as well as the lack of reason behind such violent consequences, makes “Gomorrah” a stark dose of reality masked by its packaging. Imagine watching this in Italy while the family walks the streets near your apartment.
I was first exposed to the moral rot of the Camporra when I reviewed “The Toxic Circle”, a documentary that was part of the 2017 Socially Relevant Film Festival I reviewed for CounterPunch:
When LBJ was president, his wife Lady Bird went on a campaign to persuade Americans to avoid throwing their garbage out of car windows when traveling on the highways as part of a beautification campaign. As ugly as the sight of garbage strewn alongside Campania’s highways is, the real damage is medical, not aesthetic. The toxic dumping of heavy metals and other carcinogens has led to a cancer epidemic in the countryside that is dramatized by the story of one woman in the film whose baby developed leukemia a couple of months after his birth and who died just before his second birthday. When visiting him in the children’s ward, she was shocked to discover that several other women who lived nearby were visiting for the same reason. Considering the extreme rarity of the illness, this epidemic had to be investigated.
In taking up the cause of the Camorra’s victims such as these, Robert Saviano was acting on beliefs that should be familiar to CounterPunch readers. According to Wikipedia, this young journalist (he is 39) was influenced by anarchists such as Errico Malatesta and Mikhail Bakunin. Not worried about conventional expectations of what are acceptable leftist values, Saviano is a fan of Ezra Pound and Louis Ferdinand Celine (as was Leon Trotsky.)
After the Camorra put a price on his head, six Nobel Prize authors and intellectuals (Orhan Pamuk, Dario Fo, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Desmond Tutu, Günter Grass, and Mikhail Gorbachev) issued a statement saying that they side with Saviano against Camorra, and that they think Camorra is not just a problem of security and public order, but also democracy.
Given the nativist tendencies of Italy’s current government, it is worth noting that Saviano wrote an opinion piece in the January 24, 2010 NY Times titled “Italy’s African Heroes” that was prompted by African immigrants in Rosarno rioting after young men began shooting at them with bb guns: “Immigrants come to Italy to do jobs Italians don’t want to do, but they have also begun defending the rights that Italians are too afraid, indifferent or jaded to defend. To those African immigrants I say: don’t go — don’t leave us alone with the mafias.”
Finally, let me recommend a particularly insightful review of Robert Saviano’s “Gomorrah” that appeared in the November 21, 2007 issue of The Nation by Henry Farrell, a George Washington University political science professor who has written about the mafia from a left perspective from time to time on the Rotten Timber blog. Titled “Underworlds’, it captures the degradation of the Campania region that is rapidly becoming the norm in the rest of the world either through criminal gangs or criminal governments:
Much of the economy of Campania depends on “abusive” building and the illegal disposal of toxic waste. People are terrified when a landfill opens near their homes; they know that it will likely be used by Camorra-sponsored businesses to hide illegal and toxic trash. There are markets in everything–children dig with hands and spoons for illegally dumped human bones, which come from graveyards elsewhere in Italy that are too full. A skull with teeth in good condition will fetch 100 euros as a curio in the flea market; an intact rib cage is worth 300 euros. All of Campania is, in a sense, an economy of the junkyard, built on toxic, corrosive trash that becomes more poisonous each time it is reused.