Overlong and far less emotionally resonant than it could be, Piranhas is an almost worthy, stuttering tale of gang warfare in Naples and the way teenagers are dragged into it in their search for wealth and power.

The film follows Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli), a 15-year-old whose boyish charm matches his ambition and resolve to make something of himself in the only valid mode of work that he can see: crime. A magnetic figure for other boys of his age, Nicola amasses a group of friends just as eager as he is to get in on the game, beginning a journey that sees them achieve a lot quickly, but not without substantial risks and potential high costs.

Director Claudio Giovannesi tells this story by sticking dutifully with Nicola almost the entire time. The film is never more than a few minutes away from a close-up of his face as the camera follows him walking, or biking, down a cramped Naples street. While an entertaining way of getting across a sense of the everyday about Nicola’s shenanigans and how he approaches his attempts to rise to the top of the criminal underworld, the whole thing just feels like it keeps the viewer at arms length. We only grasp things at a surface level and are never shown beyond that. The thoughts and feelings of the characters remain, largely, out of reach as a result of the matter of fact method of storytelling.

Performances here are strong all round. Di Napoli is thoroughly believable in the role, a prominent screen presence who does not struggle to evoke Nicola thoroughly. This is something that each of the actors manages to do, regardless of how small their role is. Other especially strong performances come from Ar Tem, who plays Tyson, one of Nicola’s close friends and confidantes, and Viviana Aprea, whose performance as Nicola’s main love interest Letizia was deserving of more substance and time, something the film did not afford it.

Despite the strength of those performances, the feeling of distance is somewhat exacerbated by the fact that without a strong level of investment, the film becomes more of a slog than it should be as we see the same slivers of the same characters, all from Nicola’s perspective, and thus never truly explored. Snippets of conversation and personal greetings are shown, and some are endearing, but they are repeated ad infinitum, often replaying the same or similar scenes. Again, this is a clever idea, but one that falls short because the film isn’t truly interested in the nitty gritty, but in what lies on the surface of these relationships. It also misses the opportunity to properly examine Nicola’s mental state, which is surely affected by the scenes around him but often dulled to a degree that continually refuses to allow the viewer a deeper look.

Consequently, despite a good central idea, Piranhas never quite works. The base level of interest is there, garnered by a strong sense of place and a well established world that develops a keen sense of what Giovannesi is attempting to achieve, but the film feels too sanitised, too unwilling to delve deeper and perhaps be more daring with its central concept to truly grasp at its potential. There isn’t enough life here, merely snippets or suggestions of it that ultimately feel a little too empty to be believable or profound.

Dir: Claudio Giovannesi

Scr: Claudio Giovannesi, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci

Prd: Carlo Degli Esposti, Nicola Serra

Cast: Francesco Di Napoli, Viviana Aprea, Ar Tem, Alfredo Turitto, Ciro Pellechia, Pasquale Marotta, Carmine Pizzo, Luca Nacarlo, Ciro Vecchione, Valentina Vannino

Music: Andrea Moscianese, Claudio Giovannesi

Country: Italy

Year: 2019

Run time: 105 minutes

Piranhas is available on Digital Download (iTunes, Amazon, Sky, Virgin, Google & Chili)