Francesco and Vincenzo are two little boys and best friends who play together on the streets of Naples, in a neighborhood called Sanita, one of the most troubled areas in the city. Together they explore haunted buildings, skip school and investigate local mysteries, one of which is a mutant with superpowers, a man with a deep wound on his face. They try to bring him home, keeping him safe and to themselves.
But when the two boys get caught up in the small-time world of neighborhood gangs and bullies, they pull their strange new friend into the conflict and discover that they may actually be right about the mysterious man they’ve adopted as their own.
Written and directed by Luca Nappa, this magical realist short grafts two unlikely genres onto one another, with fascinating, emotionally compelling results. There’s a strong strand of children’s fantasy, particularly inspired by 80s classics like “E.T.,” in how the storytelling puts its kid protagonists’ emotions, imaginations and concerns at the center of the story, with the magical aspect amplifying the impact of their actions and ingenuity.
But the fantastical elements are overlaid over a base of Italian neorealism, which offers a steady, sustained, almost unflinching observation of the social milieu of Naples, where the story takes place. Documenting the daily life of the people and places often forgotten by history and politics, these conditions give new life and shape to the children’s fantasy genre, offering fresh perspectives on both cinematic storytelling traditions and sociopolitical realities.
The heritage of neorealism is especially notable in the film’s visuals, which have an almost documentary-like acuity and clarity of detail. The gritty yet luminous cinematography and camera movement capture the Sanita area, putting viewers in close quarters with the ramshackle yet enduring homes, streets, noise, and buildings where the two boys grow up within.
The two actors playing the boys — nonprofessional performers Francesco Capaldo and Vincenzo Quaranta — have a spiky yet loyal bond and portray both the energy and innocence of youth mixed with a certain toughness and street smarts, and it’s a pleasure to watch them spar and strategize together as they attempt to pull their “mutant” into their orbit.
The mutant, of course, is mysterious and magical to them, and that is partly because they don’t immediately grasp his social situation. It is a unique view through which to situate the idea of a migrant, a figure that exists on the margins of an already marginal world and who seems inscrutable and enigmatic in both their silence and their need to stay hidden.
Actor Saeid Haselpour has the job of playing both the mysterious mutant’s social reality and his status as a figure of imagination and strange fascination to the two boys (and the difficult task of performing without any dialogue.) Yet the fascination he exerts make him a valuable pawn in the emerging battles in the streets of Sanita, and threaten to reveal him to the world at large.
“Warriors of Sanita” is very much a children’s fantasy story, where the huge, overwhelming aspects of the world or life are integrated into understanding with unique, resonant and creative ways. As the two boys slowly make sense of their mutant and his place in the world, what emerges is a powerful parable about how the world works — and how it often treats those marginalized and forgotten in the shadows and cracks of society.