Piranhas looking for trouble in La Paranza dei Bambini

I’m back from summer hiatus, bringing with me very good news for those of you who share my love for gangster movies: La Paranza dei Bambini (Piranhas, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Aug. 23) is a movie you won’t want to miss.

Directed by Claudio Giovannesi, Piranhas takes place in Naples, where a rag-tag band of boys in their early to mid-teens spend their days engaging in typically bad teenage behavior: smoking, drinking, trying to pick up girls. There’s not much else for these kids to do in the working-class neighborhoods of Italy’s third city, apparently.

Riding through Naples’ narrow streets astride motor scooters — two Piranhas on each, because scooters are expensive — the boys fight incessantly with the Quartieris, another gang of miscreants from around the way. As the film begins, a massive Christmas tree becomes the latest victim of their simmering street war; dragged from its moorings, the tree provides kindling for a massive bonfire outside the Piranhas’ hideout.

Fifteen-year-old Nicola (the excellent Francesco Di Napoli, looking like a softer-featured, Breathless-era Jean-Paul Belmondo) hungers for more than small-time juvenile delinquency. The son of a laundress, he resents the weekly shakedown his mother undergoes at the hands of local gangsters, and dreams of doing something about it.

The arrest of three mafioso provides the opening he and his compatriots have been waiting for. Making common cause with the Strianos — two brothers whose father once ruled their neighborhood — Nico and friends soon fill the vacuum, making bank selling drugs to university students and generously allowing the local merchants, including Mom, to forego paying protection money.

Success, of course, breeds jealousy, and the boys soon find their control of the streets challenged. Competition compels the Piranhas to acquire a cache of firearms, which offers them only temporary respite from the efforts of other aspiring gangs eager to move into their turf.

Co-written by Giovannesi and Roberto Saviano, Piranhas is a well crafted and completely captivating tale of dumb teenagers doing extremely dumb things. You’ll like the Piranhas just enough to hope for the best, while recognizing that they may get a well-deserved comeuppance at any moment; the film’s open-ended finale allows viewers to fill in the blanks as they see fit.

‘Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles’

Ready for the wonderful world of Luis Buñuel? The you’re ready for Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles

Are you ready to introduce your extremely precocious youngster to the wonderful world of Luis Buñuel? If so, head to San Francisco’s Roxie Theater for Buñuel en el laberinto de las tortugas (Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles, opening this Friday), with this warning — there’s a bit more cigarette smoking and animal cruelty than you get in your typical animated feature.

Distributed by the always adventurous GKids, Labyrinth depicts the production of the great Spanish director’s short 1933 documentary Las Hurdes (Land Without Bread). Director Salvador Simó cleverly integrates excerpts from Buñuel’s film into Labyrinth, underscoring what a remarkable, daring and ethically questionable achievement it was. If your child has a taste for the surreal and the bizarre — or a well developed social conscience — this is the film for them: if they don’t, hire a babysitter and check it out for yourself.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...