Neo-realism isn’t necessarily a genre built for star turns, but director Jonas Carpignano happened upon one anyway in his debut “Mediterranea”: Then-preteen Pio Amato wasn’t the lead in that accomplished, affecting refugee drama, but his spiky, wily turn as a Romani artful dodger in the Calabrian coastal town of Gioia Tauro was a bright, skittering firework in its margins. It comes as no surprise, then, that Carpignano has placed Pio center-stage for his similarly empathetic follow-up “A Ciambra,” weaving the charismatic kid’s tough coming-of-age narrative into a broader study of poverty and racial prejudice on the fringes of Italian society.
With the presence of Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, this polished semi-sequel to “Mediterranea” — which extends the narratives of certain characters from that film, but is otherwise a freestanding work — will doubtless boost Carpignano’s already fast-rising profile on the festival and arthouse circuit. Creatively speaking, however, “A Ciambra” is something of a step sideways for the Italian-American filmmaker, consolidating his considerable formal and observational gifts while fumbling a bit as storytelling. Overlong and oddly over-plotted as it chronicles the unsurprising escalation of its young protagonist’s life of crime, it counts on every ounce of Pio’s darting energy to see audiences through its less electric passages.
As in “Mediterranea,” Carpignano adopts a documentarian’s gaze within a fictional framework. Pio, now 14, is effectively playing a version of himself, as are over a dozen members of the garrulous Amato family, whose loose, loud, overlapping conversations as a group have a chaotic, edgily affectionate energy that can’t be scripted. Having now known the clan for several years — a short version of “A Ciambra” with the same title preceded Carpignano’s feature debut — the helmer has clearly grown close enough to them to authentically work their foibles into fiction. Tim Curtin’s fluid, on-the-fly camerawork — the spontaneity of which, thankfully, doesn’t preclude beauty in its shadow play or occasional startling bursts of synthetic color — helps foster that remarkable intimacy, which doesn’t always sit right with the more palpable contrivances in “A Ciambra’s” narrative. (Meanwhile, Dan Romer’s energizing score, with its broad church of cultural influences, aptly makes itself most felt at these points.)
Though still regarded as a scrappy little thing by his wearily loving mother Iolanda, Pio’s status in the family has been elevated by unhappy default. With father Rocco and older brother Cosimo (Damiano Amato, inheriting his twin Cosimo’s role from the short) both imprisoned for stealing electricity, Pio appoints himself as the household’s new breadwinner — putting the petty criminal tricks of the trade he’s learnt from his elders to good use. Which is to say not-so-good use, of course, though Carpignano steers pleasingly clear of judgment or sanctimony throughout.
His other mentor in matters of thievery is another face familiar from “Mediterranea”: Aviya (the subtly soulful Koudous Seihon), that film’s Burkinabe migrant protagonist, who’s now nominally settled in an African refugee camp. In Gioia Tauro, the loathing and abuse that the Romani community are often subjected to by Italians is grimly replicated in their own response to the refugees: Pio’s parents and siblings toss nakedly racist epithets back and forth with ugly abandon. The film is most politically pointed on the tragedy of mutually disenfranchised minorities keeping each other down. Pio, at least, resists: He and Aviya have a touching kindred-spirit relationship that the film could stand to develop further amid the noise of distractions and stimulants in the boy’s life, particularly given how it underpins a key moral crisis in the film’s heavily cluttered final third. Likewise, the film also shoehorns in Pio’s sexual awakening as a kind of earthy afterthought.
Perhaps, to be fair, such concerns are given equally short shrift in the boy’s young, impressionable mind as it’s pulled this way and that by a combination of domestic troubles and yo-yoing hormones. Still, such rushing leaves “A Ciambra” a little lopsided, given the languid, passive vérité of earlier passages, as well as such sweetly poetic digressions as Pio’s ailing grandfather’s mournful musings on the latter-day stasis of his once-nomadic people. “Once we were free, we didn’t have bosses,” he tells his grandson; Pio, for his part, seems determined to be his own boss as soon as possible.