This 2019 film re-elaborates elements of the 2016 book by the same name by Roberto Saviano. (The regular readers among you will already know how we felt about the book. Those of you just joining can read our review here.) This is not the first time these two juggernauts of contemporary Italian art and culture work together. Saviano is also the award-winning author of the book Gomorra, which lends its name and baseline content to the Netflix series Giovannesi directs. They joined forces on La paranza dei bambini both to illustrate visually some of the book’s key moments and to re-invent those that fell a little flat.
Quateriano primo nemico
Above all things, La paranza dei bambini is a story about neighbourhood bonds and conflicts — conflitti quateriani — passed down from generation to generation throughout camorra-controlled cities in and around Naples. Every city is broken down into “quarters” or neighbourhoods, and each neighbourhood is governed by a criminal organization. Each of these is headed by a major boss, who delegates the majority of his operations to younger players on the field. Their crimes are what you might imagine them to be: drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion. And the price of rebellion is dear — at times, as dear as life. It is a system in which “your enemy’s enemy is your friend.” Boys from neighbouring quarters, unless presided by the same boss, simply cannot socialize. And members of “disgraced families,” those whose fathers or uncles or brothers betrayed or were betrayed by the system, become obsolete before their relatives are put in the ground and behind bars. They are to be avoided at all costs if one is to live peacefully or hopes to climb the ropes of organized crime.
It is against this background that the film’s protagonists, young boys between fifteen and seventeen years old slighted in various ways by The System, take centre stage. Each of them dreams of a life bigger than himself. One in which he could comfortably afford the expensive sneakers, watches, and track suits used as markers of personal and financial success. One in which he could provide for his family and turn his modest apartment into a lavish dwelling. Moved to strike against the system that governs them (and primarily inspired by these dreams of material wealth), the boys attempt a coup of their own, but swiftly fall into the hands of their neighbourhood’s bosses. It is an encounter that forever changes their lives and introduces them formally to a world of crime and violence they could only have imagined.
Sono tutti scomparsi
When a series of events coerced by police intervention forces all the major bosses off the scene, the boys see an opportunity to take their neighbourhood, then their city, into their own hands. But their clumsy attempts at retaliation, their awkward realignments of neighbourhood justice are short-lived. Before long, they must face the consequences of their descent into criminal behaviour: the fracturing of their unit, and the casualties that comes with it.
Giovannesi and Saviano accomplish different things with their works. It was interesting to note, for me, that the book’s most poignant moments, those I remembered most vividly, were either avoided entirely in the film or treated cursorily. Wisely, Giovannesi, no doubt informed by frequent attacks on elements of Saviano’s book, chooses to focus his attention on the book’s lacunae, to develop plausible emotional motivations for his characters rather than to try to do justice to the book’s most compelling pages. In the film, Nicola (Nicolas in the book) is fatherless, the oldest son of a single mother forced to pay a camorra tithe for the upkeep of her laundromat. Though she struggles to make ends meet, there is always food on her table and spending money in her wallet for her boys. The camorra’s extortion of her is seen early on in the film and immediately becomes the lynchpin on which Nicola’s behaviour turns. It is clear that his camorra aspirations are at least in equal part motivated by a desire to protect and provide for his mother and a need to be accepted and loved by his community. This is a notable improvement on the book’s Nicolas, who takes no stock either in neighbourhood affection (rather, he is more concerned with being viewed as powerful) or in his relationship with his parents, whose positive role modelling he openly defies. This same Nicola is further spurred by a developing relationship with Letizia — a figure that predates his camorra activity in the book. In the film, he is driven to protect her, despite her belonging to a neighbourhood with a rival clan. Their star-crossed relationship serves the film in several ways. It highlights and complements Nicola’s relationship with the Striano brothers, outcast descendants of the city’s Last Great Camorra Bosses (in Nicola’s estimation). It also stands at the foundation of a moral crisis at the heart of both the film and the book, albeit in different ways.
Where Saviano adopts lyrical language to bring poetry to his work, Giovannesi relies on visual cues to create the same effect in his film. In fact, he gifts his viewers with a number of such moments. A scene in which Nicola rides to Letizia’s father’s restaurant armed with dozens of bright red balloons has frequently been cited as a dazzling display of the enthusiasm of youth and love. It was one of our Meetup viewer’s favourite scenes, as well. But there is poetry to be found in the film’s more subtle moments, too: fifteen year-old scrawny and half-naked Nicola, newly a camorra “boss”, dipping cookies into milk at the breakfast table after arguing with his kid brother about who finished the snacks in the cupboard; Letizia dancing, carefree, on the shores of the Tyrrhenian, her hair flowing all around her; a neighbourhood fish vendor offering the young bosses the finest cut of his freshest catch in his dimly-lit storefront simply in return for their abolishment of the camorra tithe. These are moments not found in the book. Moments created entirely by Giovannesi’s reflection on dinamici quarteriani and the precocious space between boyhood and bosshood, happiness and tragedy.
What did our viewers think of the film? Full disclaimer: we watched in original Neapolitan — with no subtitles! (gasp!) So it was at times difficult to follow, also because Giovannesi synthesizes considerably information that in the book is elaborated over chapters. But overall, they agree it is a focused study of childhood in dark circumstances, a realistic representation of Italian friendships and belonging to a clan, a difficult but necessary window through which to observe organized crime and violence generated by — and often turned toward — children.
An emphatic must-watch. It gets better every time, so watch it on repeat!