The mutual looking at each other between man and animal is a recurring theme in children’s cinema, also because it is often the younger ones – unwitting anti-speciesists –

who show greater empathy for the animals themselves. Anyone who grew up in the nineties will remember the unpredictable case of Free Willy , a great commercial success of 1993 that even appeared in school programs: here, Shark Teeth draws something from there too, as from the many coming-of-age stories that Hollywood was producing at that time .

The screenplay by Valerio Cilio and Gianluca Leoncini , winner of the Solinas Prize in 2014, however, does not limit itself to rehashing overseas mice : as happens in the films by Gabriele Mainetti , here producer with his Goon Films, Denti da Squalo is immersed in a a purely Italian social reality, and not only in geographical terms. We are on the Roman coast, where thirteen-year-old Walter (Tiziano Menichelli) lives with his mother Rita (Virginia Raffaele) . In the evocative incipit without dialogue we understand that Walter has just lost his father ( Claudio Santamaria ), who died in an accident in the foundry. WhileRita works in a bathhouse, the boy seeks a connection with his missing parent, and explores a large uninhabited villa that belongs to Corsaro (Edoardo Pesce) , a feared local boss. The swimming pool in the garden is very inviting, but Walter finds us a surprise: in fact, a shark swims in the pool. Scared at first, then intrigued, Walter begins to frequent the villa to isolate himself from the world. One day, however, he is surprised by Carlo (Stefano Rosci) , an older boy who claims to be the keeper: by taking care of the shark, a solid friendship is born between the two. Walterhe is then introduced to the petty crime ring, just when Rita tries to establish a dialogue with him.

It is interesting to note how European cinema often faces the fascination of pre-adolescents for adulthood, whose habits they replicate in order to distance themselves from childhood. In Shark Teeth there is also a hereditary line between father and son, where the latter feels the responsibility of picking up the parent’s baton. However, it is a formative story, therefore played on awareness: Walterreaches the epilogue in a different condition from the initial one, as it should be. He is the pivot of the narrative, not the relationship with the shark, which serves as a rather obvious metaphorical expedient (being predators, having shark’s teeth, means obtaining a dominant role in life). The animal becomes the protagonist’s conscience and witness, but also becomes the symbol of an adventurous and infinite summer, as it can only be for a child.

Not surprisingly, summer is often a season of change: from Stephen King to the cult children of the eighties, our collective imagination is full of precedents. Denti da squalo , however, has the merit of framing the formative story from a different angle compared to the average of Italian cinema, working on the mystery and contamination of the registers. There is the coming of age , of course, but also a pinch of thriller, small surreal inserts and adolescent comedy nuances, in that interregnum between Rome and the Tyrrhenian Sea that evokes the films of Claudio Caligari. The screenplay manages to bring these elements together in an organic way, while simplifying some narrative passages that would have deserved at least an explanation. On the other hand, the first-time director Davide Gentile already demonstrates great confidence, both in directing the young actors and in hybridising different techniques (live footage, animatronics and CGI) to bring the shark to life. But it is also the skill of the cast that consolidates the story: Tiziano Menichelli and Stefano Rosci recite with fluency, demonstrating remarkable harmony, while the introspective and measured performance of Virginia Raffaele consecrates her as an excellent dramatic interpreter.

If Walter ‘s male references embody a patriarchal model based on macho violence (from which, however, the father had distanced himself), Rita instead represents common sense, capable of enhancing interiority and civil confrontation. Walter , divided as he is between the drives of nature and grace, has to choose what kind of person he wants to become, and the return to childhood is in line with the most recent European cinema: after all, something similar also happened in two films like Mignonnes and Love according to Dalva , even though they are completely different experiences thematically and emotionally. On the other hand, it would be appropriate to meditate on the fact that mainstream Italian productionsthey always tend to associate the proletariat with crime, the rare times they decide to stage it. It happens here too, but maybe it’s not right to blame Shark Teeth , which at least has the merit of telling about an emancipation from that world. In any case, remaining vigilant about the representation of the popular classes in cinema – in a country that seems to hate them more and more – is a must.