As teenage gangs and knife crime become familiar news stories, two exciting filmmakers expose the frenetic energy and naivety of youth by putting weapons in the hands of their fresh-faced casts. From Alejandro Landes (Porfirio) comes Monos, an extraordinary and atmospheric drama about the disintegration of a team of child soldiers. Monos took home the Official Competition prize for Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas today. Piranhas, works in the opposite direction focussing on the rise of a child gang or ‘paranza’. Piranhas also received its UK premier at LFF where I spoke to writer-director, Claudio Giovannesi (Alì Blue Eyes, Fiore) about his depiction of adolescence in the film. In this feature I explore how Monos and Piranhas portray this complicated transition and what they might tell us about teenage life today.
The teenagers in Monos use their semi-automatic rifles to guard an adult hostage on a remote Columbian mountainside. They are unpredictable, excitable, impulsive. Rarely visited by their military commanders, they revel in love, games and magic mushrooms, jubilantly firing their AK-47s in euphoric, hot-headed celebration. Knife-edge tension accompanies their volatility seen through the eyes of their mature hostage ‘Doctora’ (Julianne Nicholson) at the mercy of their every whim.
Monos has been interpreted as a meditation on the use of child soldiers and an examination of cult dynamics; a power struggle in the vein of Lord Of The Flies. Beneath this lies a much simpler story about the over-confidence of youth; about foolish mistakes with lasting consequences. Recklessness with their guns sets in motion a cataclysmic series of events that the young people cannot escape.
The same kind of frenetic energy bubbles through Claudio Giovannesi’s coming of age drama about teen gangs in Naples, Piranhas. On the roof of an apartment block this group of triumphant teenagers fire their own AK-47s at satellite dishes. This gleeful target practice, aided by Youtube videos, is masked by the ecstatic sound of fireworks. Based on Roberto Saviano’s novel, Piranhas took home a Silver Bear at Berlin earlier this year.
Just as Monos builds tension from the conflict between the teenagers’ youthful exuberance and the seriousness of their task, Giovannesi suggests the irony of a drug dealing ‘paranza’ who still live at home with their parents. His attraction to the project lay in the “possibility to portray a series of teenagers who are constantly in a precarious balance, somewhere in between war and game, innocence and fierceness, unawareness, the lack of thoughtfulness and tragedy,” explained Giovannesi in conversation at the London Film Festival, “I found this kind of contradiction very poetic”. The poetry is echoed in the haunting portraiture of Monos, the camera closing in on fierce yet ambiguous shots of the characters’ faces imbued with Shakespearean intensity.
The sensual photography of Monos deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. But it’s the sound design – a hallucinogenic score from Mica Levi that’s fused into the film’s sound architecture with birdsong – that most effectively reveals the teenagers’ connection with their environment.
Landscape is vital to the depiction of adolescence in both films. The young people strut just as boldly through the narrow streets of Naples as the exposed hillsides of South America. The teenagers’ habitats not only reveal their confidence and resourcefulness, but also the edges of their comfort zones. Their experiences are intense but, ultimately, limited. For Giovannesi:
“The area in which the film is set is one of the protagonists because the whole struggle of the film, the whole conflict of the film, has to do with who has power over it. So it really is like a fairy tale with a kingdom that has to be conquered or retaken from the invaders. So of course what was very important was that the film was actually set in the areas where these stories happened and where the novel is set. And it is very important because you get a sense of the identities that the characters or the actors had in relation to the areas that they come from.”
His film is spoken entirely in Naples’ unique dialect. “In Italy when it came out in cinemas,” Giovannesi explains, “you needed to have Italian subtitles because no Italian would be able to follow the dialogue otherwise”. The way the characters move through the urban landscape evokes their chaotic, unpredictable energy. Giovannesi oscillates between a static frame crammed with the paranza and a moving camera that traces their motion. “If you think about their essence,” says Giovannesi, “it really has to do with movement and the lack of stasis or the lack of stillness.”
While Landes might suggest the impressionable nature of young minds to radical ideology, Giovannesi reveals their susceptibility to the everyday pressures of a consumerist society. His young men covet designer clothes and watches. Their jaws drop at the ostentatious homes of the local bosses. They too want to be seen; to have their own table at the best club in town. Once on top, the teenagers pour all their money into designer gear. They might be dealing drugs, shooting guns and committing murder, but their purchases reveal the wide-eyed immaturity of youth. Gifting the ageing Don Vittorio a widescreen TV and a Playstation, they entertain him with games while he’s under house arrest.
Self-appointed leader, Agostino, hankers after a t-shirt emblazoned with a set of wings. It’s rich with symbolism, suggesting both Agostino’s ‘coming of age’ and the rise of his paranza. As he explains in Saviano’s novel:
‘“It’s like taking someone else powers: it’s as if we’d captured an archangel, which is sort of like saying the boss of the angels, cut its throat, and taken its wings. It’s not the kind of thing that just happens along, it’s something we sweated for, that we fought hard for and won, and now it’s as if we were Archangel from the X-Men got it? It’s sort of like… something we achieved, got it?”’
Pop culture and social media is ever present, feeding and communicating the teenagers’ lifestyle. Don Vittorio asks why Agostino doesn’t try to become a footballer – ‘they’re rich’ – driving home the idea that the teenagers are looking for a shortcut. They are overconfident, lack experience and yet seek to fill a power vacuum left by outgoing mobsters two or three times their age. The story feels acutely relevant, symptomatic of a youth raised on X-Factor and Got Talent, conditioned to easy routes to fame.
Giovannesi explains his desire to “portray them as any other adolescents… with their whole world of social media, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, selfies”. Mobster movies inform their behaviour, shaping not only their aspirations but their very identities. Their naivety is charming, often funny, but it’s overlaid with a tragic sense that behaviour in youth defines adult futures.
Saviano, whose novel homes in on dialect and language, explores this through the teenagers’ nicknames or monikers. Don Vittorio explains that:
‘“It’s important what people call you. Your moniker is more important than your real name… If you want to command, you have to have a name that commands. It can be ugly, it can mean nothing, but it can’t be foolish.”’
The pressures faced by young people in establishing and defining their identities also runs through Monos. Indeed, Landes’ characters are known only by their nicknames: Wolf, Bigfoot, Lady, Rambo, Boom Boom, Dog, and Swede. Writing for Roger Ebert, Sheila O’Malley asks whether the sensitive Rambo’s “nom de guerre” might be “a mean-spirited tease imposed on her by the squadron”. “This is how “peer pressure” works in its most sinister state,” she explains, “If it’s hard for adults to stay their own course, then imagine how hard it is for teenagers.”
In both films, the young people negotiate subtle forms of intimidation, identity crises and shifting morality in their attempt to claim a piece of the adult world; taking chances and seizing the opportunities placed before them. The child soldiers in Monos declare “Doctora is ours now”; a power grab that smacks of a yearning for adulthood. Relocated from the thin air of the mountains to the intense, sticky claustrophobia of the jungle, the young people begin to lose command of their landscape, tipping towards chaos: a choice that’s earned the film comparisons to Apocalypse Now. Landes’ depiction of group mentality and dynamics stings with the anxieties of adolescence; the desire to fit in; the significance placed on bonds of friendship.
Blood and friendship lie at the centre of Saviano’s Piranhas novel too. Agostino seeks to build his paranza out of camaraderie and fellowship, the antithesis of mob families bound in blood: ‘the enemy of your enemy is your friend, aside from any issues of blood or relationships’ he thinks. By the end of the novel and Giovannesi’s film adaptation, Agostino will have learned the limitations of this thinking and experienced the pure, instinctive tug of family.
“Unlike the novel,” says Giovannesi, “what the film does is it focuses on the feelings and this huge sensitivity of the characters and that helps us see them not as criminals but as normal people that can be very close to us – our children, our brothers, our friends.” Tonally distinct, Piranhas and Monos close with shots that drive home their characters’ vulnerability and depth of feeling. For Landes, the film’s external conflict is a metaphor for the internal one beneath. “The conflict of adolescence and the actual conflict of war mirror each other,” he told Deadline.
What these films reveal is the perilous mixture of confidence and naivety that typify adolescence. By putting weapons in the hands of their young characters, Landes and Giovannesi amplify their chaotic energy; their ebullience; their impulsiveness. Crucially, the teenagers’ heedlessness and immaturity conflicts with the worldliness of the audience: will someone lose control? will there be an accident? The effect is near unbearable tension that reverberates longer and harder because it echoes a very real problem: that of youth knife crime.
The young characters remain green and raw at the end of both films; they are not yet ‘adults’ but have instead ‘come of age’ by way of their actions. “When you make a choice of that sort,” to take up arms and enter a paranza, explains Giovannesi, “there is no way out.” The weapons in Monos and Piranhas are a dangerous and tragic extension of ordinary youth.
Read more London Film Coverage here. Don’t miss Monos in UK cinemas from Friday 25 October.