A criminal education towards death, like that unrelenting passage from childhood playfulness to adulthood ferocity. Claudio Giovannesi comments on Piranhas, his film based on a novel by Roberto Saviano, who penned the script with Maurizio Braucci and the director himself. The only Italian film in the Berlinale competition was warmly received by the press. Besides the filmmakers, the young cast accompanied the film at the festival. Among them, the outstanding Francesco Di Napoli, who stands out as the young boss of a gang. The pursuit of happiness for these youngsters becomes an obsession for easy money and power, triggered by the excitement of holding a gun.

Inspired by real facts, Piranhas is produced by Carlo Degli Esposti and Nicola Serra, in collaboration with Sky Cinema and Timvision. The film shows a warm and sentimental core, very much in line with the sensibility of his 40-year-old director, who does not sensationalize the facts and allows his actors – including Renato Carpentieri – to show a full variety of emotional undertones, from recklessness to rage, from love to the will of redemption.

As Giovannesi explains: “The topic of innocence and its loss is fundamental in the book. Accordingly, the camera should focus on the faces, stay close to the characters in order to empathize and feel their humanity. I hope the audience could share this process of understanding, too.” The young actors haven’t read neither the book nor the script prior to the shooting, “and we shoot in sequence to make them live with their characters.”

Once again, a dramatic and hopeless portrait of Southern Italy? In the words Saviano: “Naples includes all of its faces and contradictions. We explored one of the scars of our time, that we can find in Latin America as well as in Bulgaria. To find their own way, these boys often see the gun as a shortcut, as their Aladdin’s lamp. Baby killers have been out there from some time now, what’s new in these piranhas is that for the first time they climbed up the Camorra hierarchies and got to the top.” Regarding the differences between the book and the film: “The novel is a study on power, while the film is a phenomenology of sentiment, because a boy who makes this choice is usually dead in three- or four-year time.”

The film opens with a fact that actually happened in reality, the theft of a Christmas three from Naples’ Galleria Umberto. This bravado preludes to increasingly daring acts for the group of friends – dealing drugs, looking for guns, wiping out competitors – a criminal education in which both adults and the institutions seem to be totally absent. Saviano states: “There’s no political perspective today, the boys refer to individual solutions. The figures of unemployment in the south reach incredible levels, and the only alternative seems to emigrate. It’s the end of hope. But if you invest 1.000 Euro in cocaine, one year later you will have 182.000 Euro. If you invest 5.000 Euro, you’ll be rich forever. Everywhere in the world drug trafficking is the shortcut to make money. These boys’ desires are the same as those of their contemporaries everywhere else, in Berlin or in Milan.”

The young actor, Francesco Di Napoli, who works as a barman in the real life, explains that for many of his contemporaries working is a “stupid” thing: “School, institutions, jobs…nothing is there. When the producers looked for me after they saw a picture of mine, I thought it was a scam and didn’t go to the audition.” A director with a special touch for working with the teenagers, Giovannesi explains: “I was looking for three characteristics in these boys: an innocent face far from the criminal iconography, a direct experience of this kind of life in these neighborhoods, and a natural talent for acting, the ability to show the weakness in their characters, to warm the film up.” How did he manage to convey such an intimate tone in storytelling despite a production that was bigger than usual? “When the producers proposed me this project, it’s been natural for me to keep my usual perspective. I could do a different and more voyeuristic film, but what I wanted to show about crime is its innocent side, the match of playfulness and war. The protagonist chases an illusory pursuit of power, he tries to do good through the evil, he wants to make justice in his neighborhood. But in order to become a criminal he must give up his age, his love and friendships. When he tries to get back, he understands that his choice is irreversible.”

Saviano spent a few more words on the topic of the absence of the adults: “A father who can’t pay back the mortgage, is left with no authority. The piranhas have two kinds of attitudes towards their parents: they either look after them, or despise them. A concrete example is the big bedroom destined to the 14-year-old son: the power hierarchies within the family are changing, the sons become criminals and earn more than their fathers.”

What did the young actor know about Saviano? “What the newspapers are saying. I had some bias at first, but now I’ve changed my mind. He’s an amazing person.” The film also includes some female characters, who are lost in this all-male world: Nicola’s mother who doesn’t ask questions, and his girlfriend Letizia who is fascinated by this boy who is respected by everyone. As Saviano explains: “Within the gangs, the female role is that of tacit consent. Letizia adores Nicola’s power, the fact that they are all afraid of him. But their love won’t save them. Because if you give up on the gun, they don’t love you anymore.”