Marked contradictions

Claudio Giovannesi on Olivia Bellini, the screenplay, Piranhas and Giorgio Armani

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Claudio Giovannesi with Anne-Katrin Titze on Francesco Di Napoli's Nicola in Piranhas (La Paranza Dei Bambini): "After this movie I met Giorgio Armani because Giorgio Armani watched the movie and fell in love with the main character."
Claudio Giovannesi with Anne-Katrin Titze on Francesco Di Napoli's Nicola in Piranhas (La Paranza Dei Bambini): "After this movie I met Giorgio Armani because Giorgio Armani watched the movie and fell in love with the main character." Photo: Lilia Blouin

Claudio Giovannesi's Piranhas (La Paranza Dei Bambini), co-written with Roberto Saviano (author of The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses Of Naples) and Maurizio Braucchi, stars Francesco Di Napoli with Luca Nacarlo, Viviana Aprea, Ar Tem, Ciro Vecchione, Alfredo Turitto, Pasquale Marotta, Ciro Pellechia, Carmine Pizzo, and Mattia Piano Del Balzo. As the director states, it "is a movie on adolescents who make a choice of a life of crime, but it starts out as a game. And then this game ends up evolving into a war."

Claudio Giovannesi on Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) with Letizia (Viviana Aprea) in Piranhas: "It is a film in which the age of the protagonists is a protagonist itself."
Claudio Giovannesi on Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) with Letizia (Viviana Aprea) in Piranhas: "It is a film in which the age of the protagonists is a protagonist itself."

Shot by Daniele Ciprì (director of It Was The Son (È Stato Il Figlio) and cinematographer for Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah, Marco Bellocchio's Dormant Beauty (Bella Addormentata) and Vincere), Piranhas takes us into a world where the organised crime in Naples controls the path laid out for the teenagers living there. Nicola is 15 and full of energy and yearnings. He wants to help out his mother (Valentina Vannino), who runs a laundromat and has to pay far too much to the local crime bosses. He wants to party in the fancy section upstairs in the local club with his pals and buy designer clothes and impress the runner-up beauty queen Letizia (Viviana Aprea) so that she will be his girlfriend.

In other words, Nicola wants to feel important and do good and have fun, not unlike many kids. Giovannesi's powerful film is an indictment that reaches far beyond the ancient cobblestone streets of Naples and that questions what role models and ideals are being provided for the next generation. Drugs and guns, money piles and golden furniture, brand-name sneakers and a giant TV, come at a terribly high moral cost and will not provide happiness.

When I met with Claudio Giovannesi at Lincoln Center for our conversation on Piranhas, the opening night film of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, presented by Film at Lincoln Center and Istituto Luce Cinecittà, he first complimented me on what I was wearing, adding that only recently he was initiated into the world of fashion, by none other than Giorgio Armani.

Claudio Giovannesi: "We have created a society where people to the extreme extent want to show off by what they own."
Claudio Giovannesi: "We have created a society where people to the extreme extent want to show off by what they own."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Tell me about your Giorgio Armani connection!

Claudio Giovannesi: After this movie I met Giorgio Armani because Giorgio Armani watched the movie and fell in love with the main character, Francesco [Di Napoli as Nicola]. So they invited us, Francesco the kid and me, like "You can come with Francesco, my guy." And they invited us to a fashion show. So I watch this fashion show of Armani and I try to understand it. He gave me a suit, a beautiful suit. It was black and blue. And after that I started to learn about fashion.

AKT: That's a good side effect of making such a strong film. What is so striking about what you show is how young they are. You never let us forget that these are little boys who enter a world of crime.

CG: It is a film in which the age of the protagonists is a protagonist itself. It is always upfront of everything else. It is not a movie on crime. It is a movie on adolescents who make a choice of a life of crime, but it starts out as a game. And then this game ends up evolving into a war.

AKT: Choice, you say. It feels as though they don't have much of a choice. Your main character very much wants to be Robin Hood and do good.

Claudio Giovannesi on Cristian (Luca Nacarlo) with his brother Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli): "Unfortunately, sadly, the reality is that all of these kids were kids that already held weapons in their life."
Claudio Giovannesi on Cristian (Luca Nacarlo) with his brother Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli): "Unfortunately, sadly, the reality is that all of these kids were kids that already held weapons in their life."

CG: Yes, he has the delusional idea that he can accomplish good through evil. This is tragic, because there's no way you can ever do good through evil. He doesn't know that. The beauty of his idea of promoting justice then ends up clashing with his criminal career.

AKT: The potential for good is so great. It is a great strength of your film that you capture the energy Nicola has, that these boys have. And the desire to do good. That's why it is so tragic. Because it's all there.

CG: This is a context with the ambition of a career, which is something that one has in any job, which is something that they do in exactly the same way. But because they do it through evil, the end result is nothing but tragic. Only a 15-year-old can think that they can get to good through evil. In Italy we have a saying that the delusional ideas are the luxury of youth.

The movie keeps shifting between marked contradictions. On the one hand sweetness, on the other a ferociousness. On the one hand a game, and on the other a war. On the one hand innocence, on the other emptiness and evil. And these actions are all played out by kids.

Claudio Giovannesi: "In Western movies you had people on horses, and the scooters become the modern-day versions of those horses."
Claudio Giovannesi: "In Western movies you had people on horses, and the scooters become the modern-day versions of those horses."

AKT: We already talked about Armani and clothing - you put your protagonist in a T-shirt with wings. Which I think symbolises exactly what you just said. On the one hand he is like a guardian angel, and on the other he might already be dead. He is already a victim or a fallen bird. Is that why you put him in that T-shirt?

CG: That T-shirt was actually suggested to me by my costume designer Olivia Bellini, with whom we did very specific precise work. We wanted to use actual existing brands, because the kids who belong to the wanna-be criminal world are in real life fashion-addicted and they use specific brands.

So we wanted to use specific brands, but then, of course, we freed them. In order to have them in a movie you must free them. We wanted the inclusion of strong primary colours. We wanted yellows and reds and blues because to us they symbolise the sense of being alive, life, vitality.

AKT: You have shopping scenes where they go crazy about sneakers and other consumer goods. It also points to the sadness of the world we live in. What is presented to them as the highest goal is to look down in the club on top of the others and say "Hey losers down there." And to go shopping for things - preferably with gold. I like that you have him go to the opera with his girlfriend [Letizia, played by Viviana Aprea]. It is a surprisingly touching scene.

Claudio Giovannesi on Francesco Di Napoli as Nicola in T-shirt with wings: "That T-shirt was actually suggested to me by my costume designer Olivia Bellini, with whom we did very specific precise work."
Claudio Giovannesi on Francesco Di Napoli as Nicola in T-shirt with wings: "That T-shirt was actually suggested to me by my costume designer Olivia Bellini, with whom we did very specific precise work."

CG: Thank you. The opera scene can be summed up with the American word, if I'm not mistaken - swag. That is, being able to show off. It's actually a scene that was told to me by a local kid who told me that he actually took his 15-year-old girlfriend to an opera. Not so much because he liked the opera - which he didn't particularly - but because he wanted to show off. This is a kind of world we have created.

We have created a society where people to the extreme extent want to show off by what they own. In a world like the one we see in the movie, in which there are no jobs, there is no opportunity to acquire wealth, crime is what allows people to have the resources to acquire these objects that then allow people to show them off.

AKT: The horrendous apartment from the crime family that Nicola is so impressed by!

CG: Actually the store where he shops is true. That kind of a taste is a real taste.

AKT: Super real. It felt that way. The scenes with the scooters zooming through those tiny Naples streets must have been difficult to shoot.

Claudio Giovannesi on Piranhas: "The movie keeps shifting between marked contradictions. On the one hand sweetness, on the other a ferociousness."
Claudio Giovannesi on Piranhas: "The movie keeps shifting between marked contradictions. On the one hand sweetness, on the other a ferociousness."

CG: Yes it was very very difficult from a technical point of view, because those Neapolitan little roads are very old and have a lot of history. They're beautiful but the paving of them is in a volcanic stone, a local stone known as tufo. And they are made of large slabs. Because of how uneven they are it was a real challenge to keep the camera steady.

The reality of those kids when they take possession of that neighbourhood, they become the owners, so to speak, happens through patrolling the land on their scooters. We thought of it the way the Western movies did. In Western movies you had people on horses, and the scooters become the modern-day versions of those horses.

AKT: Do you have a favourite Western?

CG: No, I don't like Westerns.

AKT: The role of the little brother [Cristian, played by Luca Nacarlo] in the end - are you suggesting the eternal return?

CG: Yes, because this happens when there is a void at the educational level.

Piranhas poster at Film at Lincoln Center
Piranhas poster at Film at Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Right. It all comes down to education.

CG: And when there's no offering in terms of education, an educational model, what people aspire to is being a boss, a mafia boss. So it will continue happening that way.

AKT: How did you feel directing these kids with the guns?

CG: Very good question, thank you very much. It was very difficult, very challenging. Unfortunately, sadly, the reality is that all of these kids were kids that already held weapons in their life. Because they were victims of the fascination of weapons and in that milieu for New Year's Eve, you shoot.

So they've all had that experience. That's what they were intrigued by. They really feel the fascination of those weapons that to them are perceived as toys. The reality is that they have no awareness that they can have evil impact.

AKT: There is a switch that occurs on your protagonist's face. He grows up very fast with one irreversible action. I don't want to spell it out.

CG: Yes, this is indeed the switch between the book [The Piranhas: The Boy Bosses Of Naples by Roberto Saviano] and the film.

Or between a genre movie and a coming-of-age film. That action that you're alluding to is indeed irreversible and had this been a genre film, it would have happened and there would have been no consequences on the character.

AKT: Right.

Piranhas opens at Film at Lincoln Center on August 2
Piranhas opens at Film at Lincoln Center on August 2 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

CG: Yet, in reality obviously it does have a deep impact on his emotional state. And therefore it is not something to be taken lightly. It is indeed a trauma.

AKT: You say it is different in the book?

CG: Yes, in the book it is an action that happens and it has no consequence on the protagonist because the book is a lot more violent. Whereas we want to show the massive impact it has on his life. But it is a necessary action for that kind of career.

AKT: What's coming up for you?

CG: I don't know. Because I finished this movie in February and then fortunately it got sold in 33 countries. So starting in February I've been touring for this. So now I need to figure out what I want to do.

Piranhas (La Paranza Dei Bambini), a Music Box Films release, opens on August 2 at the Walter Reade Theater of Film at Lincoln Center.

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